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Puppeteers, audience imagination bring ‘War Horse’ to life

Never underestimate the power of magic. Theatrical magic.

The kind of magic that can make fully grown humans disappear before your very eyes — at the very same time they’re bringing “War Horse” to life.

The Tony-winning stage adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s children’s novel (which also inspired director Steven Spielberg’s 2011 screen adaptation) opens an eight-performance run Wednesday at The Smith Center.

It’s the first time a touring nonmusical stage production has visited Reynolds Hall. (Albeit one with a stirring musical score, including folk songs inspired by the play’s World War I setting.)

And if the local reception is anything like what’s occurred elsewhere around the world, Las Vegas audiences should expect to be amazed — and entranced — by “War Horse’s” title character and his fellow equines.

They’re the life-size — or, more precisely, larger-than-life-size — creations of South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company, founded three decades ago by Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler, creative (and life) partners who won a special Tony Award for their “War Horse” wizardry.

But “we had absolutely no idea at the time” that the play — and its puppets — would touch audiences’ hearts so powerfully, Jones says during a telephone interview from the fishing village near Cape Town he and Kohler call home.

During rehearsals for the play’s 2007 premiere, at the National Theatre of Great Britain, “the enormous challenge of making each scene work,” combined with “some pretty snippy online reviews,” made the creators “feel quite despondent” about the show’s prospects, he admits.

Late in the preview process, however, a theater-savvy friend told them, “ ‘I may be wrong, but I’ve been in the theater for 25 years — and I think you may have a major hit on your hands.’ ” That comment “made us begin to think that, maybe, something was going very right.”

That something being the Wellspring puppets that embody Joey, “War Horse’s” title steed, and his fellow horses, in a tale that traces the friendship between young Albert Narracott (played by Michael Wyatt Cox) and his beloved horse. Together and separately, the journey leads them from a peaceful British farm to the horrors of World War I.

Before a 20-member team could craft each “War Horse” puppet — a process that took about six months — the Handspring creators conducted extensive research, observing equine behavior online and in person.

A British military museum provided “amazingly inspiring stills and live footage” of horses in battle — and during the initial production process, “we were befriended by the King’s Horse,” a London-based cavalry regiment that’s “mainly used for formal occasions,” Jones remembers. “That was the only time we could see a gun carriage pulled by horses.”

Crafted of soaked, bent and stained cane, with flowing Tyvek manes and tails, the play’s horses are “slightly bigger than a real horse,” Jones explains — because “War Horse’s” equine performers “need to have people inside.”

Two performers inside, and one outside, bring each “War Horse” equine to life, controlling the head, heart and hindquarters as the horse experiences everything from pulling a plow to participating in a World War I cavalry change — with an actor in the saddle.

“We hoped, in the beginning, we could have only two manipulators,” Jones notes, as was the case in another Handspring production, “Tall Horse,” about a giraffe’s journey down the Nile River.

The giraffe’s puppeteers were on stilts, enabling the performers inside to manipulate the giraffe’s legs and neck.

Because “War Horse’s” manipulators needed to work each horse’s legs with their hands, however, “the neck could only move when the horse came to a stop,” he explains.

Their reluctant conclusion: “We have to have a huge human being outside the puppet.”

Kohler “devised a controlling pole that flips over the head of the horse,” putting the puppeteer “upstage of the horse” — and therefore partially “hidden by the horse,” Jones says. “It’s a great invention.”

In addition, Jones and Kohler also found that “if the puppeteer concentrates totally on the face of the horse, he or she disappears. “That’s part of the magic of the imagination of the audience.”

Jones realized just how powerful the magic of imagination could be when he watched an early “War Horse” performance and heard the reaction of young audiences.

“We were afraid children would say, ‘But Mummy, how come those people are there? ” he recalls. Instead, the kids asked, “ ‘Mummy, how come the horse allows the human to be near it?’ ”

But each horse’s trio of puppeteers controls more than movement.

“The actors needed to learn how to make sounds” appropriate to everything the horses experience, whether “nickering, whinnying or screaming” in battle, Jones says. “Each group of three people has to learn how to do that — how to start the sound, and then go from one person to the next,” because “a horse has such huge lungs. It led to a very real sense of the breath of everyone controlling the horse.”

Unlike some plays that treat animals anthropomorphically, where the creatures talk and exhibit other human characteristics (“Lion King,” for example), “War Horse’s” star “animal speaks to its audience in its own way, (through) body language and sound language,” he says.

And “to present an animal as an animal” — and “as central to the play” — underlines the historic connection “between people and horses” that Jones describes as “a 10,000-year romance.”

Until the advent of motor vehicles, mechanized tractors, military tanks and other machines, “every single person, whether rural or urban,” had a direct relationship with horses, he says. “Part of what’s great about this production is revisiting that relationship — and mourning its passing.”

Contact reporter Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

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