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'War Horse' Brings Perfection in Puppetry to Segerstrom Center

'War Horse,' 2011 London cast
(c) BRINKHOFF AND M-GENBURG

War Horse
Through February 3
Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday,
and Friday at 7:30 p.m.;
Saturday at 2 and 7:30 p.m.;
Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m.
Reservations: 714.556.2787
Segerstrom Center for the Arts
600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa
scfta.org :: warhorseonstage.com 

War Horse’s legacy began in 1982. The story of Albert and his amazing horse, Joey, was created by famed British children’s author Michael Morpurgo. Flash-forward to 2007, when the book was adapted for the London stage by Nick Stafford and The Handspring Puppet Company and our perceptions of theatrical puppetry changed for good. It is a magnificent and entertaining display of skill and performance not seen often in theater; simple, yet sophisticated, and definitely worthy of its 2011 five Tony awards, including Best Show.

War Horse takes us to World War I England and tells the tale of a boy and his horse. Said horse is sold to the army and travels to France as an officer’s mount to fight the Germans. Said boy enlists in the army and embarks on a quest to find his beloved horse. What follows is a rather dark adventure staged on several battlefields.

With over 30 members in the cast, the real stars of this show are the puppets, skillfully manipulated by a small group of puppeteers. “The Horses” (Joey and Tophorn) are listed top bill, followed by “The People.” When you see it, you will know why.

Let me share some interesting facts about the War Horse, Joey: (Thank you, Segerstrom Center for the Arts for the cheat sheet!)

The puppet was handmade by 14 people – the frame is made primarily of cane that is soaked, bent and stained. Total weight is 120 pounds.

The frame is made of aluminum that runs along the spine, which allows the actors to ride Joey.

Stretched, hosiery-like Georgette fabric makes up the skin beneath the frame

A puppeteer at the head controls the ears and head; one in the heart controls the breathing and front legs; a third in the hind controls the tail and the legs.

A harness connects the puppet’s and puppeteer’s spines so their movement becomes the breathing of the puppet horse.

The tail and the ears are moveable instead of the lips or eyelids, as this is how horses usually express themselves.

Two levers connected with bicycle brake cables control the leather ears.

The horse puppet is just under 10 feet long and almost 8 feet tall, has about 20 major joints and vertical levers are used to curl the knees and lift the hooves.

The horse’s neck is made of carbon fiberglass so it is flexible.

The eyes of the horse are black color behind clear resin so light can refract through them.

The right hind lever moves the tail up and down; the left hind lever moves it left to right, and when moved together, the tail can spin.

The hair in the mane and tail is made of Tyvek, which is a plastic-like paper.

You will be mesmerized by these puppets – the combination of their construction, the skill with which they are manipulated and performed, combined with a theatrical setting that suspends reality… your mind and heart is totally invested in these magnificent beasts.

The horses are in the thick of it, and at times are used to reveal some humanity amidst the horror of war. There is a touching scene in which soldiers from opposite sides wave the white flag in order to help Joey get untangled from the newest weapon of war – barb wire. There is no language barrier or malice when it comes to saving this poor animal, and these type of heroic gestures are sprinkled throughout Morpurgo’s story.

War Horse is a bit dark and I recommend that parents wait until their children are mature enough to handle scenes featuring the sights and sounds that accompany the casualties of war. If you want a reference point, Steven Spielberg’s 2011 film adaptation is terrific, but again, not for the little ones.

If you can arrive early to Segerstrom Center, visit the displays, which feature World War I memorabilia, puppet tutorials and a thoughtful documentary featuring the star of War Horse.

Impressive, remarkable, sentimental, and extraordinary, this show sets a high bar of theatrical inventiveness not to be missed.




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