‘War Horse’ trots to Fox during national tour debut

When “War Horse” closes on Broadway in January, about 750 audiences will have witnessed the striking realism of “Joey” and his fellow equine puppets.

While the recently announced closing of the show — which scored six Tonys, including best play, in 2011 — struck Adrian Kohler with a tinge of sadness, he’s thankful that the horses he and partner Basil Jones created with their Handspring Puppet Company have a new life on the road. The Tonys included a special one for Handspring’s work.

“War Horse,” based on the 1982 novel by Michael Morpurgo about a young man named Albert trying to find his beloved horse, Joey, who has been shipped off to fight in World War I, launched its first U.S. tour in June. The emotional play makes its debut at the Fox Theatre on Tuesday and runs through Sunday.

Although the show filled 93 percent of seats in New York’s Vivian Beaumont Theater the week of Sept. 10 — the most recent numbers available at Playbill.com — and grossed just under $600,000, the production is a pricey investment.

“I think the producers would rather go out on a high than risk another summer,” Kohler said recently. “It’s a play, not a musical and while there are a lot of people who still want to see it, it’s in a really big theater [to fill] on Broadway.”

In fact, there was initially trepidation that “War Horse” couldn’t hit the live trail at all because, Kohler said, it requires a “deep thrust” stage format, and most touring theaters have proscenium arches that frame the stage.

Kohler and Jones were involved in slightly tweaking the show to retain the same ingredients and not change the puppets, which are primarily constructed of steel, leather and aircraft cables.

Instead, they manipulated the “horse choreography,” such as having the puppeteers act as if they’re galloping forward while the horse is actually moving sideways on their human feet.

It’s a delicate dance, coordinating the nine horses and the dozen puppeteers in the cast. Joey and his rival, Topthorn, each have eight legs prepared — four in waiting in case of a break or tear — as well as two heads and two necks.

The greatest challenge in bringing the horses to life, however, isn’t physical, but auditory.

“Three people need to make the horse sounds,” Kohler said. “Horse lungs are much bigger than human lungs, so for the squeals and nickers, there’s a choir of people making the noises live every night.”

Kohler and Jones have operated the Handspring Puppet Company in Cape Town, South Africa, since 1981, but it was the 2007 debut of “War Horse” at the Royal National Theatre in London’s West End that elevated their creative business to international prominence. After the “hurricane hitter,” as Kohler refers to the show’s effect on Handspring, the company grew to employ 25 people.

Their first prototype of Joey took about four months to create as Kohler and Jones searched for lightweight and strong material. They also got a crash course in Horse Anatomy 101, studying the animal’s skeleton to see how and where joints worked and then watched live horses to emulate their movements.

Kohler still sounds sheepish when he admits that he “cheated” when it came to establishing how the puppet horses would breathe.

“A horse’s ribs expand sideways when they’re out of breath, but I made the breathing go up and down so I could use the puppeteers’ knees as the engine for breathing instead of their arms. It actually turned out to be much more effective,” he said.

When asked if the horses have different personalities, Kohler laughs, not as if it’s an absurd question, but because, as their creator, he knows their intricacies like a mother recognizes her child’s laugh.

“Joey is the most stocky horse. He’s the thoroughbred,” Kohler said. “Topthorn is the Cary Grant instead of the Harrison Ford. Joey is the hunter; he’s solid. But Topthorn is jumpy. He rules the roost.”

Joey also has become an internationally recognized inanimate hero, even making an appearance during the celebration of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee this summer.

Kohler laughs again at the memory.

“That was something, wasn’t it? Our first studio was in a small undertaker’s building, and we stored all of our materials in a washroom,” Kohler said. “To go from that to getting a gig in Cape Town to making children’s shows to working in lovely theaters in Europe and finally the great stage at the National … it’s wild.”

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