WAR HORSE adapted by Nick Stafford from Michael Morpurgo's novel, directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, with Alex Furber, Brad Rudy, Tamara Bernier-Evans, Richard McMillan, Patrick Galligan and Melanie Doane. Presented by David Mirvish and the National Theatre of Great Britain at the Princess of Wales Theatre (300 King West). Previews through Monday (February 27) opens Tuesday (February 28) and runs through June 30, Tuesday-Saturday 7:30 pm, matinees Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday 1:30 pm. $35-$130. 416-872-1212. See listing.
It doesn't take a lot of horse sense to know that the newest Mirvish production is going to be a huge hit.
War Horse is the tale of Albert, a young British boy who searches for his horse, Joey, on the French battlefields of the First World War. The play has been selling out in London and New York.
If you've seen the Stephen Spielberg film version, don't assume the play will duplicate the cinematic experience.
It's not just the story that'll grab audiences, but also the staging: Joey and the other animals are puppets, brilliantly devised by Handspring Puppet Company's Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones. Three "handlers," visible within the puppet's structure, operate each adult horse.
The result is not only fascinating to watch but also magically turns the aluminum, cane and gauze puppets into believable beasts.
"We all took puppet workshops, even those whose main job isn't working with the puppets," says Patrick Galligan, who plays Friedrich Müller, the horse-loving German officer who saves Joey and his equine companion, the thoroughbred Topthorn. "No one in the all-Canadian cast had done extensive puppetry; we all came on to the project as actors.
"But the creators wanted an ensemble whose members could all pick up a puppet at some point.
"We've come together as a group of storytellers, some of whom are major puppeteers; no one group competes for time on the stage."
Galligan, who spent the past nine summers at the Shaw Festival and has also performed at the Tarragon and Soulpepper, has shown up covered with blood and ash for a dinnertime interview - the company is rehearsing in full costume and makeup.
"Friedrich is a cavalry officer born in the era of Prussian chivalry that's now, with a mechanized, entrenched war, obsolete," he says of his emotionally complex character. "Along with some other German officers, he's realized pretty quickly that a fully mounted charge against the enemy is suicide. It's unfortunate that the English didn't see it, too, since it's their tragic attack that sends Joey, riderless, behind German lines.
"He makes it his mission to save horses from the carnage he's witnessed, trying to get Joey and Topthorn to work with an ambulance cart rather than hurtling into battle. Friedrich's fate becomes linked with theirs."
What's it like working with the horse puppets?
"In some ways it's like collaborating with other actors, trying to figure out what kind of give-and-take succeeds to give life to a scene. While I know there are three people working each horse, early on I saw that a horse can be my scene partner.
"I can touch Joey's face, share a breath with him and groom him; you couldn't do that quite the same way with a fellow actor," laughs Galligan. "You don't have to worry about invading the other's personal space - an animal like this is desperate for your attention - and it's quite liberating.
"But later you can step back and talk to the puppeteers for advice about what's working and what's not. I have the best of both worlds: acting with an animal and relying on the sense and good taste of fine actors onstage with me."
Galligan's struck, too, by the importance of the horses to Müller's journey in the play.
"The nature of war is that people have to deaden themselves to slaughter and limit their connection to others to avoid being destroyed by loss. When we meet him, Friedrich has sublimated his humanity in order to survive.
"The ironic lesson he learns is that in caring for the horses he finds a reason to live and something to care about beyond his mere survival."