By Jared Bowen
Since its debut in London’s West End, War Horse has galloped away with a stream of accolades, including the 2011 Tony Award for Best Play. The first national touring production is now playing at the Boston Opera House, where I was treated to a revealing look at the equine star.
Set in the English countryside in 1912, the story belongs to a teenager named Albert who raises a colt he calls Joey. Their bond is immediate and unwavering. But at the outbreak of World War I, Joey is conscripted into the British army.
War Horse traces Joey’s brutal path through war and the majestic animal’s endurance in a landscape of horror. Uxbridge, Mass. native Andrew Veenstra plays Albert, and he’s clear about the play’s main theme.
“It’s definitely an anthem of peace. You look at the atrocities that were committed and why they were committed and you’re left questioning what it was all about and why it’s there,” Veenstra said.
The emotional heft of the show comes from the horses — life-sized puppets created by The Handspring Puppet Company, which received a special Tony Award for the effort. Veenstra introduced me to his partner on stage.
“This is Joey. He’ll get to know you. He’ll smell you. You just reach out. He’s no different from any other horse,” he said as the puppet nuzzled my hand. It was remarkable to meet Joey, and I’m someone who grew up riding horses. This seemed like a horse!
Joey is an elaborate creation — handmade by over a dozen people, he is 120 pounds, roughly 10 feet long and eight feet tall. He is framed in cane and aluminum. Leather drapes his back and a hosiery-like fabric comprises his skin. But he is imbued with life.
“What they found with horses is actually when they breathe, they expand outward,” Veenstra said. “The lungs of the horse are about three times the size of human lungs, so to get the sound produced, it takes three people to create that. And all three of them create the horse sounds. Everything involves sound. There’s no recordings or anything like that for any of the live-action horses.”
The three actors — puppeteers inhabiting Joey serve as the head, heart and hind manipulating the horse through a series of levers controlling 20 joints.
“The most important thing is we all inform each other. The hind that is the engine of the body and the head being the thought of that animal, the breath and the engine and the mind all work together and you know create this really beautiful organism,” said puppeteer Brian Robert Burns.
It’s a process that has become organic for the actors. While they have basic choreography on stage telling them where to be and when, they’re otherwise given free rein.
“As we get further into this tour we start to really flesh out these tiny details of what the horse is thinking. And they surprise us when we’re on stage. That’s the surprising thing,” said puppeteer Danny Yoerges.
The third puppeteer, Jessica Krueger, added that she sees the role of her trio as constantly evolving.
“I have a terrible habit of seeing something, stealing it, putting it in the show right away without telling anybody and then seeing how that worked. I’ll see things on YouTube, in a live horse, anything. I’ll find a place to put it [in the performance]. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t,” she said.
For Veenstra there is little question that the spirit of Joey drives the entire production.
“Joey is never anything but Joey to us in the cast. I forget, quite honestly probably quicker than the audience does, that it’s even operated by people. You just immediately are feeling for this animal.”
That’s what makes War Horse an unbridled success.
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