If War Horse does its job, you'll leave the theater crying — not over the relationship between two humans or even between a human and a live horse but between a boy and a mechanical horse puppet made of cane-wrapped aluminum and mesh fabric.
To say the national tour of War Horse is the theatrical event of the season is an understatement. This is a play that, in its original West End run in London, broke the record for highest weekly gross for a play there. And it was the first show to attract the attendance of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip in four years. This was all prior to its five-time Tony-winning Broadway production and the film adaptation from Steven Spielberg that brought the story an even larger audience. When the Broward Center for the Performing Arts announced in February 2012 that the touring production would close its Broadway Across America season this May, the buzz reverberated through the tricounty arts scene like an equine stampede.
You probably know the story: Joey, the favorite horse of a boy named Albert, is requisitioned into the British Army at the start of World War I. Albert, not old enough to serve, secretly searches for his horse, traveling traumatic distances through war and peace.
There are plenty of human actors in the show, but its success hinges on the three people operating Joey — and the other faceless actors controlling up to six ensemble horses onstage at any given time — who are tasked with breathing life into their puppets. If the horse isn't real, neither is the emotional investment.
"The most rewarding part of the show is having a team of three people relinquishing their egos to bring forth a single entity onstage and having the audience connect with this character that doesn't speak," says Jon Hoche, who controls Joey from the outside, essentially acting as its mahout. "[The horses are] the stars of the show, yet they're not supposed to know blocking or understand dialogue; it's a very emotionally based kind of acting style."
Hoche, who, when he's not controlling artificial horses, is an assistant for a cult New York troupe called Vampire Cowboy Theatre Company, will guide Joey alongside two others perched inside the puppet: Adam Cunningham, who works the animal's front section, and Aaron Haskell, who brings up the rear. War Horse is not a musical, but the horse team is choreographed like one; a false move could break the synchronization.
"As a dancer, I feel that a lot of what we do is very dance-like," says Haskell, who also builds puppets and haunted houses in New York. "You have to constantly think, because if my partner chooses to do something, the rest of the horse has to go along with it. It's one of the hardest parts about doing it, to constantly be completely active, mentally and physically."
To train for this most unusual of theater jobs, the team enjoyed two weeks of rehearsal with the ersatz horses before the human cast arrived. They learned the basic movements — trot, gallop, graze — as well as how to work together as a team: to breathe in unison, to communicate without talking. They studied live horses at stables around New York City, observing them in their natural habitats and studying their responses to stimuli.
"Besides that, we've also done a lot of research by reading books on horse psychology and watching things on YouTube," Hoche says. "It's a continuous process, and we're learning new things every show. That's one of the great things about the show: It's never the same."
"We have to go from stage right to stage left sometimes and be in a very specific place, but how we get there is very much up to us, which keeps the show active and alive all the time," adds Haskell.
Like the black-clad puppeteers in Avenue Q, the horse team must blend invisibly into the background. After a couple of minutes, audiences should be so swept up in the drama and the horse's lifelike movements that they won't notice the four human legs jutting under its midsection or the man keeping pace outside the beast.
To that end, audiences will have plenty of theatrical distractions, for this is a show in which the details are integral. Its lighting, sound, and scenic design all took home Tony Awards, using special effects to simulate wartime drama on a relatively minimalist stage.
Should another opportunity to horse-act arise — a War Horse 2, perhaps, or a theatrical adaptation of Mr. Ed — these three guys will be on the producers' Rolodex, and the experience will no doubt be just like riding a bike. Or, in Cunningham's case, like piloting a plane.
"I would attribute the experience to being a bit like a fighter pilot," he says. "I have my two controls; everything is tucked in nice and close. We're strapped into harnesses that hug and hold us intensely."
"As the hind, I would say I feel like the jet propulsion," adds Haskell. "I'm constantly going forward and pushing the thing around and pushing [Cunningham], and he pulls and pushes me. It's very earthy. You have to get down into the ground with the show."
"I'm running alongside the horse a lot to keep up and keep the head in the right position," says Hoche. "As a result, I've become more accustomed to running and walking backwards nowadays than running forwards."
Ah, the strange benefits of horseplay.