The Artist Series of Jacksonville offers a unique opportunity to experience a rare and unforgettable theatre production at the Times Union Center through February 23rd.
Why is the Tony Award Winning “War Horse” so extraordinary that you probably will never see it done in even the most ambitious community theatres? The central characters are life-sized puppets, horses, made of metal, leather, and wood. Each is operated by 3 puppeteers from the Handspring Puppet Company (a total of 13 of them) who, with the use of unseen levers and wires, create the movements of the horses, which include swishing tails, wiggling ears, trotting, and pawing the ground. The movements of the horses are so realistic that after a few minutes, you aren’t even aware the puppeteers are onstage with them.
This British play debuted in 2007 and has been seen by about 6 million people. In addition to the horses, the play has 32 other characters, and requires a very large cast. The two characters who will command most of your attention are Joey, a horse, and Albert, a young British farm boy, who raised him after his father purchased him as a foal at an auction.
In 1914, at the beginning of World War I, Albert’s father sells the young horse to the British Army behind Albert’s back for 100 pounds, and Joey is shipped off to France to serve in the cavalry. When Albert becomes old enough, he joins the army and undertakes a perilous journey to find his beloved horse and bring him home.
This is not a musical, but a play with music, featuring folk songs and anthems at various points throughout. Since mainly an open stage is used, with some set pieces brought on and off, the production uses an ingenious way to illustrate the action and to keep the audience aware of time and place. Hovering over the stage for the entire show is a section of a page torn from a sketchbook which depicts an artist’s dated renderings of the changing settings and includes urban streets, rural landscapes, and battlefields.
The town folks wear clothing of the period, and the soldiers, both German and British, are dressed in the proper military attire. Yes, this is first a love story, but it is also a war story, with lots of gunfire from pistols, machine guns, and cannons, and some of the scenes may be too unsettling for younger children.
It is impossible to list all the actors in this show, but it is a superb cast whose members seem as truly inspired by the magnificent horses as the audience members.
For those who want to do a bit of research before you go, the play was adapted from a 1982 novel by Michael Morpurgo called War Horse. The National Theatre of Great Britain produced the show in 2007 and used the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa to produce the remarkable horses. In 2011 Steven Spielberg produced a film using real life horses that we had seen and found it to have enhanced our appreciation of this stunning play.