The thing is, you can see the people manipulating the horse – two standing inside the "body" of the beast, their legs always visible below its torso, between the front and back legs; the third not even partially obscured as they are but always standing in plain sight by the animal's head, where you see him moving it with his hand and a rod that connects to the back of its skull. They're there, all right, but it doesn't matter. Once the puppeteers begin working that life-sized structure of cane, aluminum, wire, and plastic, lifting and lowering its hooves, flicking its fabric tail, shaking its massive head, pricking its ears – every movement so painstakingly modeled on actual equine behavior – that horse comes alive before you. The fact that the humans are connected becomes irrelevant; a fourth presence is with them, an independent, animated, animal presence.
That "disappearing act" is something that Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler, founders of the Handspring Puppet Company, are "deeply proud of" with regard to their work on War Horse. The two had been making sophisticated puppet theatre in South Africa for more than a quarter-century when they were offered the opportunity to collaborate on the National Theatre of Great Britain's adaptation of the Michael Morpurgo novel. It was a demanding assignment, given that the story takes its titular creature from an English farm to the battlefields of World War I, where it confronts enemy soldiers, barbed wire, and even a tank. Moreover, the horse, Joey, is present in nearly every scene and to convey the depth of Joey's bond with Albert, the farmboy who cares for him, having Albert ride Joey was vital. But as Kohler and Jones explained in a 2011 TED talk, having already developed a series of complicated animal puppets – a hyena for Faustus in Africa, a life-sized giraffe for Tall Horse – gave them a leg up on the problem, so to speak. Working with Thys Stander, Handspring's chief puppetmaker, they came up with the relatively lightweight framework – roughly 65-90 pounds – and the system of levers and pulleys that allowed enough range of motion for puppeteers to mimic a horse's moves. Intense study of horses on film and in person helped them make those moves mesmerizingly lifelike.
Anyone thinking they can skip the stage version because they saw Steven Spielberg's 2011 film should think again. The difference between that treatment of the material and this is the difference between the screen version of The Lion King and its Broadway counterpart; the former is a cinematic approach, while the latter takes full advantage of theatricality to tell the tale. As Julie Taymor did with the Disney musical, stage directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris did with War Horse, employing some of theatre's most ancient and artificial devices with no effort to hide or disguise them from the audience. They embrace the theatricality of the puppets, and the result is, in the words of the New York Times' Ben Brantley, "ineffably theatrical magic." Having seen the production in London five years ago, I have to agree. This show works some powerful enchantment, investing this inanimate creature with so much life and reality that you come to care more deeply for it than for some of the humans onstage. What might be simply another variation on the familiar boy-meets-animal, boy-loses-animal, boy-gets-animal-back tale is imbued with wonder, making it thrilling and moving in unexpected and memorable ways. See for yourself, because this strikes me as one of those instances where seeing is believing.
War Horse runs May 6-11, Tuesday-Friday, 8pm; Saturday, 2 & 8pm; Sunday, 1 & 7pm, at Bass Concert Hall, 2350 Robert Dedman. For more information, call 512/477-6060 or visit www.texasperformingarts.org.
Copyright © 2016 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.