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Theater review: 'War Horse' puppetry is phenomenal

Published April 25, 2014 12:22 pm

Stage • Life-size horses created by South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company are nothing short of astonishing.
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"War Horse" just might be the greatest puppet show you'll ever see.

It is not populated by your average puppets. Nothing even resembling a Muppet.

The life-size horses created by South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company are nothing short of astonishing. It really is possible to forget — if only for a moment — that you can see the puppeteers operating the animals.

You forget the humans when the horses flick their ears. When they snort and whinny. When they appear, yes, lifelike.

There are a few other animal puppets in addition to the horses — birds on long poles; a cantankerous goose on wheels; and a couple of scary vultures.

The incredible horse puppets work well in the minimalist but highly engaging staging of "War Horse" that runs through Sunday at the Capitol Theatre in Salt Lake City.

Based on author Michael Morpurgo's 1982 novel, this is the story of a family at war with itself; a horse that changes a teenager's life; and the horrors of World War I.

Yes, it's a children's book. But this production — filled with explosions, gunfire and heartbreaking death scenes — is not for younger kids. They would be traumatized.

The story revolves around Albert Narracott (Michael Wyatt Cox) and the horse, Joey, his father (Andrew Long) spends way too much money to buy — mortgage money — in an effort to outdo his brother. Albert performs near-miracles with the horse he quickly grows to love.

But his alcoholic father sells Joey to the British cavalry as they're headed to France to battle the Germans. Albert is not only heartbroken, but determined to find Joey — even if it means putting his own life in danger.

It's not all gloom. There are laughs amid the pathos. Laughs that don't feel forced.

"War Horse" is not some Disney animated movie translated onto the stage. This is very tough material that often left the audience on opening night in the Capitol Theatre silenced in their seats.

There are some fine performance here from Cox; from Utahn Maria Elena Ramirez, who plays Albert's mother, Rose; from Andy Truschinski, who plays Albert's comrade in arms on the battlefield; from Andrew May, who plays a tormented German colonel; and from the puppeteers.

The two biggest problems with "War Horse": The first act is better than the second act; and at 2 ½ hours (including a 20-minute intermission), it's too long. (Another reason to leave younger kids at home.)

But "War Horse" is often astonishing to look at. In some scenes, it's almost like ballet to see the horses performing onstage.

And, truthfully, for a fraction of a second, I wondered if the smoke onstage was affecting the horses.


Twitter: @ScottDPierce —

'War Horse'

Puppetry is fantastic, performances are good in "War Horse" — but it's definitely not for younger kids.

Where • Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City

When • Reviewed on Tuesday, April 23; continues at 7:30 p.m. through Thursday, April 24; 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, April 25-26, with a 2 p.m. matinee Saturday; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, April 27.

Tickets • $40-$90 (plus facility and ticketing fees) at arttix.org or 801-355-2787

Running time • 2½ hours (including a 20-minute intermission)

Also • Access to Capitol Theatre is affected by the construction of the new Ballet Centre. Theatergoers should plan on adding 15 to 20 minutes to their commute.

Pedestrian notes • The sidewalk west of the theater is closed. The drop-off/loading zone has been pushed east of the theater, near the bus stop.

Parking • For ADA parking, look for on-street parking east of the theater on 200 South. Also, on 200 South, there are three garages with paid parking available: Ampco 170 Garage, 170 S. Main St., with entrance on 200 South next to Capitol Theatre; Ampco 175 Garage, 175 S. West Temple; or American Plaza Garage, 51 W. 200 South, across from the theater. About Joey, the horse puppet

The puppet weighs 120 pounds, with a frame of mostly cane that was soaked, bent and stained; it was made by a team of 14 people. An aluminum frame along the spine, lined partly with leather, allows the horse to be ridden.

Hosiery-like georgette fabric makes up the puppet's skin.

One puppeteer controls the ears and head; one controls breathing and front legs; the third the tail and back legs.

The puppeteers and puppets are connected by a harness, so the humans' movements become the breathing of the horse.

The puppet has movable tail and ears; two levers connected with bicycle brake cables control the leather ears.

The puppet, about 10 feet long and 8 feet tall, has about 20 major joints. Vertical levers curl the knees and lift the hooves.

The neck is made of carbon-fiber glass for flexibility.

The puppet's eyes are black behind clear resin so light refracts through them.

The right hind lever moves the tail up and down; the left hind lever, left to right; moved together, it spirals.

The hair in the mane and tail is of Tyvek, a plasticlike paper.

From Broadway Across America — Utah