‘War Horse’ looks at World War I through another set of eyes
By Brian P. Sharp
Photo: [l to r] The puppet horses Joey and Tophorn in “War Horse,” which runs at the Schuster Performing Arts Center Oct. 22-27; photo: © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg
Are you ready for “War Horse”? The Victoria Theatre Association is opening their Broadway Series with this Tony Award winner. I wasn’t ready for “War Horse.” I am not sure what I expected, but I got so much more.
The play – written by Michael Morpurgo – was an instant success. Morpurgo, who grew up in London just after the Second World War, knew first-hand the effects of war. The journey to write the story began after seeing an old painting of a cavalry charge that also showed one or two horses caught up in barbed wire. Morpurgo once wrote that he was trying to write the story of the First World War as seen through the eyes of a horse. He met a man who told him of his own experience in the war and how he had loved a horse, but it had been left behind and later was sold off to butchers for meat. Morpurgo struggled with how to bring the story to life, until he met Billy. Billy was a child that had been in the foster care system and had lived with several families. Young Billy struggled with a stammer and had nearly given up speaking. Morpurgo was working on a farm helping children, and he encountered Billy standing in the stable talking freely to one of the horses. What Morpurgo witnessed was game changing – he had the feeling that the horse understood exactly what Billy was saying. This moment was all Morpurgo needed to write “War Horse.”
I had the opportunity to talk to Jon Riddleberger, head puppeteer for the production of “War Horse” that is coming to Dayton. I asked him if, as head puppeteer, he was in charge of the other puppeteers: “No, I am the puppeteer of the head, neck and ears, the others are in the body.” Riddleberger has experience as an actor and a puppeteer. Originally from New Jersey, he currently lives in New York and works with the Theatre Reconstruction Ensemble, putting theatre under a lens and studying where it has come from – and where it is going.
Riddleberger has been traveling with “War Horse” in this capacity since March of 2012. The job is physically taxing. Joey – the puppet horse which Riddelberger is a part of – weighs about 120 pounds. The head alone weighs 30-40 pounds. The task of puppeteer is so strenuous that a physical therapist travels with the company. While the puppeteer is responsible for the physical movement, they are also miked and responsible for sounds of the horse as well. Riddleberger is the puppeteer that is fully exposed outside the puppet, while there are two others tending to the rest of the animal from inside.
Riddleberger says that he has to engage with the puppet – his eyes have to be on the puppet at all times. He said, “I care about the puppet, not me.” Riddleberger shared that the show grants the audience the permission to know that the puppeteers are there. However, as I experienced, within minutes, you don’t even realize they are there. This show engages the imagination of the audience. The set is simple and the audience will experience puppets early in the show. There are humans involved in many aspects of the set. Riddleberger said that while movies and television do a great job of storytelling, this is true theater and requires the audience to really buy in and involved. Riddleberger also said the audience quickly becomes the fourth puppeteer.
The touring company has been on the road since early 2012 with very little time off. Riddleberger said that while last year the tours had longer runs in larger cities, this year the company is in and out of towns weekly.
If you are a history buff, you will love this show. If you are a horse lover, you will love this show. If you are a theater lover, you will love this show. It’s a win-win-win!
“War Horse” runs October 22-27 at the Schuster Performing Arts Center, 1 W. Second St. For information regarding show times and tickets, please visit ticketcenterstage.com or victoriatheatre.com.
Reach DCP theatre critic Brian P. Sharp at Theatre@DaytonCityPaper.com