TAMPA — There are real live actors in War Horse — quite a lot, in fact, to play the 32 people listed in the cast — and I must offer my apologies, because I don't think I could name one of them.
But I'll never forget the star, Joey, the incredible (slightly larger than) life-size horse puppet that makes the play such an unprecedented spectacle, one in which the people are distinctly second-billed to their ersatz equine colleagues. The opening show Tuesday drew a near-sellout crowd of 2,418 to Morsani Hall of the Straz Center for the Performing Arts.
War Horse, originally co-directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris and adapted by Nick Stafford from Michael Morpurgo's novel for young adults, digs deep into the primal relationship between humans and horses. Raised by a boy named Albert Narracott (Alex Morf) in rural Devon in the south of England, Joey is sold to the cavalry when World War I breaks out. In France, amid the hellish trench warfare, he sets off on an odyssey that has him serving on both the British and German sides, getting tangled up in barbed wire in no man's land and finally being reunited with Albert.
Going back to Punch and Judy and beyond, there have been plenty of puppets in theater, most notably on a grand scale in The Lion King, but the magnificent horses and other creations (including a cantankerous goose on a wheel, songbirds on poles and carrion birds on actors' arms) by Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones of South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company are uncanny in their expressiveness. For all the vigorous, large-scale movement (Toby Sedgwick is credited with "horse choreography") like galloping and rearing up, some of the most emotional moments happen in utter stillness, such as when all you see is a horse's head and eyes, gazing out of the murky darkness.
Joey, who grows from gawky foal into imposing brown steed (appearing much heavier than the 120 pounds he actually weighs), and his great rival and eventual pal, a high-strung black horse called Topthorn, are each manipulated by three handlers in period dress — two inside the frame and one at the side, operating the head, ears and neck. It's often said that the horse puppets, made of cane, fabric, leather, plastic-like paper and wire, are so enchanting that the viewer forgets about their handlers, and perhaps that is so, but the duality of the performance also contributes to the effect. You never really forget that there are three actors (Christopher Mai, Harlan Bengel and Rob Laqui on Tuesday) causing Joey to breathe, snort, flick his tail, whinny, jump, plunge his head into a bucket of oats or nuzzle Albert.
Another star of War Horse is Rae Smith's scenic design, the sets and costumes and especially her drawings that are projected onto an irregular screen (meant to suggest a page torn from a sketchbook) above the stage, evoking everything from bucolic pastures to barbed wire, bullets and bombs. The lighting by Paule Constable is central to communicating the personalities of the horse puppets, and Christopher Shutt's sound design is almost overwhelming in battle scenes. John Milosich on vocals and Nathan Koci on accordion are the main players of music by Adrian Sutton and songs by John Tams, though the orchestral score is recorded.
Stafford's adaptation of War Horse is very different in its details from Morpurgo's novel, which is narrated from Joey's point of view, and the Steven Spielberg movie (inspired by the stage show), and the story drags at times, as in the rather confusing relationship between a horse-loving German, Capt. Friedrich Muller (Andre May), and a French girl and her mother. But the two essential themes on the horror of war and the magic of horses are a powerful combination in this theatrical experience like no other.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.