“An actor struggles to die onstage, but a puppet has to struggle to live. And in a way that’s a metaphor for life.” – Handspring Puppet Company, creator of puppets for the stage show “War Horse”
The theatre production of “War Horse” first came to my attention at the 2011 Tony Awards, where it picked up five awards. The brief yet enchanting moment when the puppet horse first came on stage sent a jolt to my soul. I turned to my beloved and said, “Let’s fly to New York to see it!” He smiled and, as he does, inserted reason into my life by saying, “I bet it will come to San Francisco. Let’s see.”
Of course, he was right. Soon enough the show came to San Francisco’s venerable Curran Theatre and we got tickets for the closing weekend.
Raised in New Mexico, I was surrounded by horses, and it’s no secret that I am a horse person. I have always loved the gentle animals and in college I was trained to ride by a protégé of Monty Roberts (the inspiration for “The Horse Whisperer”) and she taught us in his style.
Which is to say one must listen to a horse. You must note the posture of their ears. Understand why a foot stamp matters. Realize that a deep inhale or a deep exhale actually means something. I’ve spent hours simply watching a horse so that I could hear what it was telling me.
I say this to explain that going into a show where the main characters are puppet horses, I had my doubts. Would the actors using bits of metal and canvas along with pulleys and levers really be able to pull it off? Could I actually suspend my critical mind long enough to believe that was a horse on stage?
I’ll cut to the chase…they nailed it. I don’t know how they did it, but they did. From simple ear flicks, to a shivering coat when brushed, to head posture. At one point, there was a long dialogue between two human characters while two horses stood off to the side. The horses sighed, tipped a front hoof on edge, stamped, and shifted weight from side to side. If you’ve ever made a horse stand still for a length of time you’ve seen all of this. It wasn’t affected, just natural and true.
And then woven around this astounding feat of puppetry was a really difficult story set in Europe during World War I.
I’ve often been told in crafting stories that there are no new plots and it is the job of the writer to find a way to bring a new perspective to a known story. In this play, the underlying story is one we know. War is awful. Ravaging. It irrevocably changes those who were sent to the front lines.
We know the story, but when you add the majestic layer of these well wrought puppet animals, seeing the story through their eyes, it becomes something almost cinematic. How they staged such an ambitious production on the Curran’s small stage is still a miracle to me.
From light cues to small movements to the amazing work of the puppeteers, this show transcends theatre. I willingly suspended my disbelief and didn’t want it back for a single moment.
Let’s be honest, I totally ugly cried right there in the theatre. I mean cried so hard I was afraid I couldn’t get my composure back. That’s how deeply it got inside of me. Thankfully I was in good company, most of the patrons shed some tears too.
Over breakfast the next day while idly discussing the show, I tried to speak about one of the more powerful scenes and it again brought tears to the corners of my eyes.
It’s rare and beautiful to find a piece of creative work, be it a book, movie or play, that gets inside the cellular walls of your soul and hangs on. War Horse is that, for me.
I then and there declared my goal to see it again. In New York, and then in London.
When we did get to see the show again at Lincoln Center in New York, it was a bigger and more profound production. Our seats were so close that we were in the middle of the action. It was a different show because I saw different things, and it was doubly profound.
Later I actually found myself in London on a work trip, but sadly the show had ended its run and wasn’t being staged. Instead I settled for going to a local movie theater in my hometown and seeing a National Theatre Live recording of the show from a London West End production.
When the lights came up from this third viewing, I knew that I had completed my journey. The show still shook me to my core, but I was finally done. Ready to let it go.
I am grateful to all of the actors, the puppeteers, the various casts and crews for giving me many good reasons to suspend my disbelief. To experience a show that rattles me and means something to me. To believe.
And to run back to the theatre time and time again looking for new ways willingly suspend all over again.
© 2017, Karen Fayeth