War Horse, a novel-turned-play, has been nominated for dozens of awards both in London and the United States and now is coming to the Pantages Theatre beginning Tuesday.
Originally a 1982 novel by Michael Morpurgo, War Horse has become an international phenomenon in print, on stage and on screen. When Morpurgo was first approached about adapting War Horse to a stage production, he was hesitant. The show proved an instant success, however, soon touring the United States and inspiring a Hollywood film in 2011.
The performance tells the story of Joey, a foal purchased at a small-town auction. As he grows up, Joey forms a strong bond with his purchaser’s son, Albert, but before long, Joey is sold to the U.S. Cavalry at the beginning of World War I. War Horse follows Albert as he joins the Army to rescue Joey from behind enemy lines.
War Horse is unique in the sense that it tells the story of an animal, a feat that has had little success on Broadway previously. Theater puppets often present a hassle for productions and provide forgettable results, but War Horse makes excellent and efficient use of handcrafted puppets. The Handspring Puppet Company, who designed and crafted all of the animal puppets in the show, won a special Tony Award at the 2011 Tonys for its work in War Horse. Jessica Krueger, puppeteer for Joey in this production, said the puppets are one of the show’s biggest draws.
“By and large, audiences are surprised by War Horse … Even if they’ve seen the TV commercial or read the book or seen the TED talk, they say they were amazed. They’ve never seen anything like it,” Krueger said in an email.
Krueger said she loves the atmosphere that the puppeteering aspect of the show creates.
“War Horse requires a level of ensemble I have not experienced with other productions. It’s both challenging and rewarding to share a role with two other people,” Krueger said. “It requires a kind of ego sacrifice that, as an actor, you don’t get asked for very often.”
Krueger became involved in War Horse after she heard it was coming to Broadway and watched a TED talk by the Handspring Puppet Company. She noticed while watching that all of Joey’s puppeteers were male but felt that she was perfectly capable of filling the role. Krueger auditioned and was soon an integral part of the show.
One of Krueger’s biggest challenges about being Joey was maintaining character while playing a horse. Krueger credits her background in anthropology with helping her acclimate to the role.
“Both disciplines are all about context. I find that my training in anthropology helps me to constantly connect with the context of whoever I am playing, or what actors tend to call the ‘given circumstances,’” Krueger said. “In War Horse, one of the challenges is keeping our responses horse, not human, or dog, or cat or any other kind of pet.”
The puppeteers, most of whom have undertaken a completely new experience in their careers, turn puppetry into poetry with their performance. Many show reviews describe the puppeteers as being better and more memorable than the actual actors in the production. At the very least, War Horse promises a unique stage experience.
Though War Horse was released as a film, Krueger said the plot differences and the puppetry make the theater production and the film entirely different experiences.
Though the War Horse film was nominated for six Academy Awards, the theater production has garnered even more acclaim. Among its many accolades are five 2011 Tony Awards, including one for Best Play.
Krueger, who was part of War Horse when its tour opened at the Ahmanson Theatre last summer, appreciates Los Angeles audiences.
“The great thing about L.A. is that [audiences] are always hungry for the new thing. … [They] come in and are ready to see what [we] have for them,” Krueger said.
War Horse opens at the Hollywood Pantages on Oct. 8, with tickets starting at $32 and will play until Oct. 13.
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