“War Horse” play features life-size puppets

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 “War Horse” will come to Bass Concert Hall and run next Tuesday through Sunday.

Photo Credit: Photo Courtesy of Brinkhoff/MogenBurg | Daily Texan Staff

Instead of the usual highly designed Broadway stage, “War Horse” will only rely on lighting, actors, a few key props and puppets to depict its story. 

The theatrical adaptation of “War Horse” will run from May 6-11 at Bass Concert Hall. 

The play follows a boy, Albert, and his horse, Joey. After raising Joey from a foal, Albert is distraught when his father sells the horse to the cavalry during World War I. The plot follows both Albert and Joey’s experiences during the war.

“I think a lot of what the play is about is investigating the effects war has on both sides,” said Caden Douglas, who plays cavalry member Captain Charles Stewart. “Coming to the show is a very good lesson on the first World War, a time period that is fading from our memory because there aren’t any veterans left.”

Gene Bartholomew, assistant director of communications and Broadway operations for Texas Performing Arts, said he saw the show in New York and decided to bring it to UT. 

“I saw the show at Lincoln Center when it was there a few years back,” Bartholomew said. “When I saw the show, I knew it had to come here. For one, it’s a play. It’s nice to have a play in between all of the musicals. They challenge audiences.” 

“War Horse”’s success can be attributed to the movie version’s release and to the show’s theatricality.

The show incorporates lifelike puppets, ranging from swallows and geese, to life-size horses that can be ridden by the actors. 

“There is no attempt to hide the puppeteers in the show,” Douglas said. “They are very present. But I think once the show starts you forget they are there. The nuances, subtlety and specificity the puppeteers use to bring these animals to life is incredible.”

The puppets are made of intricate wood frames that can be manipulated easily by pulleys and pedals, with pieces of sheer fabric covering the frames. The horses require three puppeteers — one at the head, middle and rear of the horse. With practice, the movements appear almost identical to those of a real horse.

The puppeteers rely on horse noises, like whinnies and snorts, to communicate with the actors, audience and each other. 

“We learn how to blend our voices together to make that work,” said James Duncan, head puppeteer for Joey. “The lung capacity of a horse is about [the] size of three people and they have the ability to clash their vocal chords together, so it does take all three of us doing it together.” 

Douglas said the puppets, acting and plot combine to create a story that touches audiences night after night. 

“At the beginning of the play I’m always touched that I get to share this story with this group of people,” Douglas said. “By the end of the play when we look out at the audience to see what they have experienced, most nights there are a lot of people who are very deeply moved, whether they’re crying or reflective. It’s hugely rewarding to make that kind of connection with a large group of people.”