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Morrison Center Previews War Horse

Tony Award winning drama gets a makeover in Boise

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For most of May, the Morrison Center was a mess. Rows of finely upholstered red seats were swallowed up by so many electrical cables, it looked like the theater was being reclaimed by a technological jungle.

Fittingly enough, the reason it looked like a bomb went off in the auditorium is that it is preparing for war.

The Morrison Center was selected as the place to restage the five-time Tony Award-winning play War Horse as a touring show. After doing a four-day preview in Boise, it will leave for Los Angeles and points beyond on a year-long loop around the United States.

"None of us ever dreamed that [War Horse] would be a show that would play at theaters all over the world," said Chris Harper, who produced the show for the National Theatre in London. "It was set out to be a seasonal show that played at the National Theatre at Christmas."

But after becoming the most successful show in the exceedingly long history of the National Theatre--2 million people saw the production--the show was moved to New York, where it is receiving an open-ended run.

Now Harper is globe-hopping like a theatrical James Bond, organizing concurrent productions in the United States, Canada, Australia and more. But it's not just the success that makes War Horse unlikely; it's the play itself.

The production is adapted from a children's novel told from the perspective of a horse that is caught up in the madness of World War I. But no one in the National Theatre wanted to stage Mr. Ed going to war. So the story had to be re-envisioned with a main character that never speaks, is not human and could be taken completely seriously as a hero. No small feat.

Having already incorporated one go-to punchline--a talking horse--the producers turned to another: puppets. It was a process that took four years.

The man they turned to was Adrian Kohler, of the South African Handspring Puppet Company, who had attracted the producer's attention after designing a life-sized giraffe for a play in South Africa. Though his company had started off with talking animal puppets, he agreed with the producers that it was a bad choice for War Horse.

"I think it's more fascinating to look at an animal, a horse, as a horse instead of as a horse that talks," said Kohler. "Because a horse does talk, but it uses its own language."

Kohler said a horse communicates through its eyes, ears, tail and even through its skin.

"If it can shiver, it says something about what the horse is feeling," he said. "It involved a lot of engineering."

It took 20 people working for seven months to craft the puppet cast.

But the finished products are like no puppets you've ever conceived of before. The four horses stand eight feet tall and each must be operated by a team of three puppeteers that control everything down to the ears and tail. It is a psychologically complex--and physically taxing--process that required three weeks of special rehearsal just for the puppetmasters to learn to walk.

"They are trained to move like a wild animal," said Harper. "But to do that, they have to move as one."

Even the sounds the actors make must be bellowed in perfect unison, as horses have lungs far larger than a human's.

The total effect is so lifelike that even with the puppet's industrial aesthetic--exposed aluminum skeletons stretched with sheer fabric--a live horse introduced to the puppet in a YouTube video seems convinced.

Harper said that a major challenge at the start was that traditional puppetmasters understood marionettes but were not physical enough for the sorts of puppets designed for the show. Instead, they had to recruit actors, dancers and even mimes. And they needed a lot of them. There are 38 people on stage and multiple productions happening simultaneously across the world. It is a cast size generally seen only in musicals.

Though the aluminum puppets somehow only weigh approximately 60 pounds, Harper still said the process is taxing enough that the actors must be rotated out into roles as soldiers to avoid injury.

"The human body cannot endure being in that puppet for three hours a night every day a week," he said.

Nor could the puppets themselves. The original design was too fragile to endure the length of the run; replacements and a large supply of spare parts had to be made. The prop room of the Morrison Center is stacked with horse heads and limbs like a battlefield in the war they were created to portray.

But that was only the tip of the iceberg when it came to restaging the show. The theater on which War Horse was originally staged was known as a "thrust," which extends into the audience like an amphitheater. The Morrison Center, like most of the theaters in which War Horse will show, does not have one. That meant the show had to be entirely reblocked.

But the lack of the thrust stage also meant the loss of a major piece of machinery in the play: a revolving stage that was used to change scenes. In Kohler's view, this was a plus.

The horses can now gallop and move in different and more compelling ways and are not as spread out on the stage, which better shows their relationship to each other.

"There's a point in the play where the horses are pulling a heavy German gun carriage. And because of the restrictions of the stage, they were never able to move beyond the center of the stage," said Kohler. "But now it's able to slide in mud and nearly wipe out the stage. It's a very dangerous moment and one we only discovered because we didn't have a revolving stage."

When the show leaves Boise for its U.S. tour, that process will begin anew nightly. Every theater is different and War Horse, with all its tanks, gun carriages, 500 costumes, dozens of actors and spare horse heads, must find a way to fit in.

"It seems like a very simple story of a boy and his horse, but it's very complex," said Harper.

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