By Rosemary Ford Staff Writer
Newburyport Daily News
---- — Many things are possible in the world of theater — though having 10 or so horses on or back stage really isn’t one of them, even on Broadway.
So when the creators of “War Horse” first staged the show in London, they decided to bring the audiences the next best thing — lifelike horse puppets that can gallop and charge on stage. Each is controlled by three people and can carry an actor around on stage (as long as said actor is good at balancing.)
Local audiences will be able to see for themselves how realistic these “thoroughbreds” are, with “War Horse” now playing Boston’s Opera House for the first time. Set in World War I, the story focuses on a boy so devoted to his horse, that he heads to war to find him. The show — the winner of five 2011 Tony awards — will be here through Oct. 21.
One of the creators of these amazing puppets is Handspring Puppet founder Adrian Kohler. In an interview from Atlanta, as he was tweaking the show, Kohler said the design and execution of the intricate puppets took several years to perfect.
It started with the study of real horses, and moved on to the logistics of creating a puppet that was maneuverable yet able to carry the weight of an actor. The puppets featured in “War Horse” take great care to breathe, wiggle their ears and stomp like a real horse. Kohler said this is the first time such elaborate puppets have been used on stage.
“The theater is a place where you imagine things into being,” he explained.
The study of horses and endless prototypes eventually paid off for Kohler and Handspring cofounder Basil Jones — the two won a special Tony for their work in the show.
“We keep it in the middle of our meeting table in Cape Town,” said Kohler, whose company is based in South Africa.
Kohler himself has a deep love of horses, going back to his childhood days spent on his grandfather’s farm. He thinks that audiences around the world (two million and counting) are coming out to see the show because horses are mankind’s other best friend.
“The horse is such a powerful animal, yet it tries to do the things people ask it to,” Kohler said. “It doesn’t judge.”
“War Horse” is based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo and adapted for the stage by Nick Stafford. The novel was also the inspiration for Steven Spielberg’s 2011 feature film of the same name, which earned six Oscar nominations including Best Picture.
Spielberg bought the rights to the story after seeing the show in London a few years ago.
While flattered that the famous director liked the show and his work, Kohler did point out one significant difference between that production and the stage version.
“Spielberg had 16 different Joeys,” Kohler said. The stage version sticks to the one on stage.
The story focuses on Albert and his beloved horse, Joey, who has been enlisted to fight for the English in World War I. Joey is caught in enemy crossfire and ends up serving both sides of the war before landing in no man’s land. Albert, not old enough to enlist, embarks on a treacherous mission to find his horse and bring him home.
“People sent it into one of the worst hells imaginable, and it does comply,” Kohler said. “It has a tremendous trust in people.”
If you go
What: “War Horse”
Where: Boston Opera House, 539 Washington St.
When: Now through Oct. 21
How much: Tickets start at $33. Call 800-982-2787 or visit www.BroadwayInBoston.com