“This is a play that’s unlike anything anyone’s ever seen before.”
That was the early promise from War Horse’s lead actor, Alex Morf, when I talked to him earlier this week.
After seeing the performance Wednesday night during the show’s debut at the Orpheum Theatre, I can’t help but completely agree.
War Horse is a true theatrical masterpiece — one that tugs at every emotion and leaves its audience breathless more than once.
Yes, the story is compelling, the actors are truly talented and the music is incredibly moving but without a doubt, the puppeteers steal this show.
A 120-pound transparent shell of a horse comes to life through the guidance of three master puppeteers who not only perfect the natural movement of the horse but provide its voice, as well. Through this transformation, Joey, War Horse’s star stallion, has plenty of personality, displays humor and projects a ton of heart.
“Just getting to act on stage with these puppets that seem like real horses — real whinnying, breathing horses, it’s such a unique experience for an actor,” Morf said, who plays Albert in the play. “Those puppeteers give me so much because every day it’s different. Every day it’s a wild animal and I don’t know what it’s going to do. It helps me keep things fresh. I fall in love with that horse every night.”
The audience does, too.
Joey’s three puppeteers are clearly visible at all times — two inside controlling the breathing, front legs, back legs and tail plus a third, outside the puppet, controlling the ears and head. Still, as Morf says, “We’re making magic and we’re showing you that it’s magic — we’re not hiding the puppet strings and you completely agree to forget.”
The audience finds itself wanting to believe in the realism of the horses and the emotions they feel, but every so often, you find yourself captivated by the artistry happening below the surface.
Add to that an incredible story of love, courage and loyalty and a highly talented cast that propels that message along and you’re left with one of this season’s must-see experiences.
The play opens on a blank canvas — a piece of sketch paper that’s been ripped away from an artist’s book. It’s the only background of the entire show and the sole placement of a changing scenery and advancing timeline.
A lone singer, without musical accompaniment, paints a picture of the opening scene. These songs often provide the only music throughout the show — sometimes moving and beautiful, sometimes eerie and haunting, it’s a brilliant inclusion to the changing scenes and seasons.
Morf’s character Albert is a 16-year-old boy with a lot of determination and a lot of heart. He instantly falls in love with his family’s new horse Joey — a horse that nearly cost them their farm due to his father’s hotheaded stubbornness.
Albert and Joey share a connection unlike any other. The two become inseparable and develop their own special way to communicate.
“It’s something that anybody who has ever had a dog or a cat or an animal that they were really close to can really identify with Albert,” he said. “Another big part of what this play is about is that special relationship of why we care so much about these animals. There’s an innocent love to animals that draws us in.”
But this isn’t just a story about a boy and his horse. As the title alludes, this is also a story of war — World War I to be exact.
As the war begins, Albert’s father, unable to control his own greed, sells Joey to the cavalry, separating his son from his best friend. When word returns home that Joey’s caretaker in the war has been killed, Albert goes on a daring mission to bring his horse home.
As expected, the war scenes are some of the most intense, most powerful — not to mention, jarring and loud — of the entire play. It keeps you on the edge of your seat but it also is enough to make grown women gasp and grown men plug their ears.
Beyond the chaos of war, there’s the emotional side — the struggles of boys facing the harsh realities of battle and the motivation of undying love that can propel soldiers into untapped bravery.
Albert deals with all of the above and leaves every last piece of himself on the stage.
“It’s both exhausting and liberating at the same time,” Morf said. “I definitely sleep well after a show — especially when we have two shows in one day.”
There are more than a few moments that will have you reaching for the Kleenex but the play’s overarching message somehow leaves you with a feeling of optimism and peace.
“The thing that keeps me engaged in the emotional life of the show is the joy of the show and the joy of my character because that is what drives the play. It’s a story about hope and joy and love,” Morf said.
The show may have clearly mastered the art of puppetry both literally and through its heartfelt story, but in this case, I’m more than happy to ignore the strings.
War Horse runs through June 23 at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis. For tickets or more information, click here. Runtime: 2 hours, 40 minutes, including a 20-minute intermission.