'War Horse' comes to life at Stranahan Theater

  • photo-1

    Joey and Topthorn graze in a scene from ‘War Horse.’


  • Michael Wyatt Cox as Albert, foreground, with the horse Joey, in ‘War Horse.’ Human puppeteers control the movements of Joey and the other horses in the show.
    Michael Wyatt Cox as Albert, foreground, with the horse Joey, in ‘War Horse.’ Human puppeteers control the movements of Joey and the other horses in the show.

    Magic takes many forms in the acclaimed drama War Horse opening at the Stranahan Theater Wednesday.

    Flesh-and-blood actors share the stage with astonishing life-size horse puppets and their human puppeteers. With the power of imagination, they transport the audience to a farm in Devon, England, and then to the horrors of World War I.

    War Horse overflows with emotion as it tells the story of Albert and his much-loved horse, Joey. Their friendship begins when Albert’s father, Ted, buys a foal at auction in 1912. Young Albert names the foal Joey and raises him as the two grow up together.

    “Albert is kind of a shy kid, not a lot of friends, he works on the farm a lot ... I think [Albert and Joey] learn a lot from each other about friendship, and love,” said Michael Wyatt Cox, who portrays Albert in the national touring production. “They forge an incredible bond, and I think that’s what really makes the show.”

    But then comes World War I.

    Albert’s father sells Joey to the cavalry, and Joey and Topthorn, another army horse, are shipped to France. British soldiers are overwhelmed by the German army’s machine guns, barbed wire, and gas. Joey and Topthorn escape being destroyed because of Joey’s strength in pulling an ambulance for the wounded, but the animals do not escape the bottomless cruelty of war. Albert enlists in the army by lying about his age and goes in search of Joey, determined to bring him home.

    ‘There are scenes of war, but the show’s an anthem for peace,” Cox said.

    The National Theatre of Great Britain’s War Horse touring production is based on a 1982 novel of the same name by British writer Michael Morpurgo, author of more than 100 books for young people. In an interview on the War Horse Web site, Morpurgo said he wanted to look at the “universal suffering” of World War I.

    ‘War Horse’ is ‘an anthem for peace,’ says Michael Wyatt Cox, who plays Albert in the national touring production.
    ‘War Horse’ is ‘an anthem for peace,’ says Michael Wyatt Cox, who plays Albert in the national touring production.

    His book was adapted for the stage by Nick Stafford. The play opened in London in 2007, and on Broadway in 2011; it won five Tony awards that year, including Best Play. The tour of War Horse is directed by Bijan Sheibani, based on the original Tony Award-winning direction of Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, and is presented in association with Handspring Puppet Company, based in South Africa.

    Steven Spielberg based his 2011 War Horse film on the book and the New York stage production.

    The three life-size, and amazingly lifelike, horse puppets (Joey as a foal and as a grown stallion, and Topthorn, the other army stallion), created by Handspring, could be considered the stars of War Horse, as they gallop and charge across the stage. And the puppeteers who bring them to life onstage are actors too.

    “They’re living each moment,” said said. “It’s three people [in each horse] who bring the horse alive, and they can’t speak during the show to each other, they can’t give each other hand signals, they just have to breathe together and move together, and in so doing they create the beauty of the movement, and the life of the horse.”

    The puppet Joey weighs 120 pounds and is handmade by 14 people. Its frame is mostly cane, soaked, bent, and stained, according to press materials. An aluminum frame along the spine, lined partly with leather for comfort, allows the horse to be ridden. The skin beneath the frame is stretched Georgette fabric. Other Joey facts from the press materials include:

    ● A puppeteer at the head controls the ears and head; one in the heart controls breathing and front legs; a third in the hind controls the tail and back legs.

    ● A harness connects the puppet’s and puppeteer’s spines so his or her movements become the breathing of the horse.

    ● The tail and ears are moveable instead of the lips or eyelids, because that’s how horses usually express themselves.

    ● Two levers connected with bicycle brake cables control the leather ears.

    ● The puppet, just under 10 feet long and about 8 feet tall, has about 20 major joints. Vertical levers curl the knees and lift the hooves.

    Joey and Topthorn graze in a scene from ‘War Horse.’
    Joey and Topthorn graze in a scene from ‘War Horse.’

    Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones, two of the founders of Handspring Puppet Company, won the Special Tony Award in 2011 for their work in War Horse.

    Cox says his favorite scenes are the ones that show the emotions of friendship and loyalty between Albert and Joey. “I’ve always been an animal person,” he adding that currently he has a calico cat named Daisy back at home.

    He acted in high school — attending an arts high school in Florida — and continued all through college, and said playing different roles prepares an actor for the next one. But what really got him ready for War Horse is his early background.

    “My dad is a veterinarian and he took care of horses, and growing up on a farm as a boy and being around horses a lot really prepared me the most for this,” Cox said. He has always kept up with riding, and recently he and other cast members took a riding lesson “to stay connected to the real animal, learn they body language, and get to be around them.”

    Cox was in his first show in eighth grade. “I think my mother just wanted to get me out of the house because she suggested I audition for a play, and I loved it.”

    War Horse is part of the Theater League Broadway in Toledo series at the Stranahan Theater, 4645 Heatherdowns Blvd. Shows are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Dec. 8 at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Depending on the day of the performance, tickets are $63 to $68 for the main floor, $53 to $58 for the balcony, and $33 to $38 for the last three rows of the balcony, from,, 381-8851 and the Stranahan box office, Monday-Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. The play is recommended for people 10 and older.

    Contact Sue Brickey at: