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Friday, Apr 20, 2018
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Arts & Music

Masterful puppetry shines in ‘War Horse’

A horse is a horse. Unless, of course, it’s a captivating, awe-inspiring, life-size puppet that gallops onto the stage in “War Horse.”
The thrilling stage adaptation of Michael Morpugo’s 1982 children’s book, rode onto The Straz stage Tuesday, telling the story of Albert Narracott (Alex Morf), a 16-year-old English boy (though Morf looks much older) that forms a strong bond with a trusty steed he named Joey.
“War Horse” is a visually stunning story about love, war, death and loss filled with masterful puppetry that makes make-believe believable. There are many human actors doing yeoman’s work on the Straz stage, but the horses and the people working them are the stars.
The audience first meets Joey as a skittish foal, when two brothers, the liquor loving irresponsible Ted Narracott (Todd Cerveris) and his pompous brother, Arthur Narrocott (Brian Keane) get into a bidding war over the horse at an auction.
Ted wins, and it’s love at first sight for Albert, who quickly bonds with Joey. Albert’s hard-working, yet exasperated mother, Rose, (Angela Reed) tries to keep the peace between her menfolk.
When Ted sells Joey to the British Calvary and the horse is sent to the frontlines to fight in France, a distraught Albert vows to find his equine pal, even if it means enlisting in the war.
Their stories unfold as Albert searches for Joey amid the gruesome battlefields of World War I.
The stage design, by Rae Smith, is simple but helps hammer home the brutality of war with digital animation of war tanks, battle ships and exploding bombs projected on what appears to be a large piece of torn cloth hanging above the stage.
Dark shadows, fog, explosions and blinding flashes of light add to the emotional impact of the staging, as do corpses and machine guns and tanks on stage.
Even slow motion movements are used to create a feeling of doom, such as when a horse dies and his three puppeteers slowly back out of his body and leave the stage. And one scene, when artillery hits a soldier while he is riding Joey and actors pull him off the horse in slow motion.
Through the performance, a lone “Song Man” helps guide the action with period-style hymns and ballads sung beautifully by John Milosich.
But it’s the horses – and the puppeteers’ amazing talent – that command the stage.
As a foal, Joey’s handlers are more apparent because of its small frame.
But when Joey bursts onto the stage as a full-grown, life-size equine, he breathes, snorts, gallops, rears up on its hind-legs, swishes his tail and loudly neighs, though the neighs often sound more like human screams than horse.
Joey is commandeered by three puppeteers; equally as impressive is Joey’s sidekick, the mighty stallion TopThorn.
The puppets, created by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company, are skeleton frames of metal and fabric operated by three performers two inside the frame, a third who walks alongside the horse operating the head movements. Joey says more with a prick of his ears than any dialogue in the play.
There’s even a sassy goose and flying birds.
The puppeteers wear clothing from the period of the play, yet the audience quickly grows to care about the survival of the animals as if they were flesh and blood, which speaks volumes of the performers’ talents.
During a few scenes, audible gasps could be heard throughout the audience when the horses are injured or their lives are in jeopardy.
“They seem to just vanish,” said one theater-goer of the puppeteers’ work.
“I see them more as handlers than puppeteers,” said another. “It’s fascinating how it works.”

“War Horse” runs through Sunday at The Straz Center, 1010 N. MacInnes Place, Tampa; Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. tonight and Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $44.50, $62.50 and $94.50; (813) 229-7827 and www.strazcenter.org

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