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Puppets tell a moving story in ‘War Horse’

Tribune correspondent
Published:   |   Updated: April 27, 2013 at 04:04 PM

Theatergoers don’t need horse sense to appreciate the effort it took to make “War Horse,” Broadway’s 2011 Tony Award winner. Complex puppets, sturdy enough for a man to ride, tell the touching story of a thoroughbred witnessing World War I.

Though populated by puppets, this play is no fleece- and foam-filled Muppet sketch. It’s a tale about the horrors of war seen from an animal’s perspective.

When “War Horse” opens Tuesday night at the Straz Center, the serious mechanics of puppeteering life-size creatures will become all too clear.

At the onset of World War I, beautiful bay-colored Joey is taken from his young owner, Albert, and sent to the cavalry in France. The Germans capture the horse when the British officer riding him is killed. Privy to both sides of the war, the innocent animal experiences human depravity at every turn.

Nick Stafford adapted Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 young adult novel for the stage, complemented by Handspring Puppet Company’s artistry. Jon Riddleberger, Patrick Osteen and Jessica Krueger bring life to Joey’s head, heart and hind, respectively. With Riddleberger at the 35-pound helm, manipulating the horse’s head, Osteen and Krueger carry the remaining 70-pound torso of steel, leather and aircraft cables.

Horses express themselves with their constantly twitching ears, so Riddleberger’s job requires a sensitive touch while lifting Joey’s heavy noggin.

“I’m in control of the horse’s head, neck and ears. The neck has all the same joints that a horse would have. I have a rod attached to the top of the neck. On that rod I have two bicycle breaks that control the ears and can move independently of each other,” said Riddleberger.

Strength especially defines Osteen and Krueger’s positions. Concealed beneath a mesh canopy, both performers sweat and strain under the weight of the puppet and sometimes a rider as well. They walk in a squat position, carrying this heavy load, nearly the entire time on stage. For all three, though, it’s an exhausting, full-body workout.

“I’m in the heart position, which is the front two legs,” Osteen said. “The two legs are controlled by hand levers. When I squeeze my levers, the legs bend, and when I move my arms, the legs move on joints. Because I’m harnessed in a cage under the horse, when I bend my legs the body of the horse goes down with me. I also simulate the horse’s breathing.”

Krueger literally picks up the rear.

“I operate the hind legs. I have two levers at the ankle joints and as I lift these poles, the legs curl. Bicycle brakes on the poles make the tail move. One moves the tail left and right and one moves it up and down. I try to be the power of the horse. Quadrupeds propel themselves from back forward, so I push Patrick around a lot,” Krueger said.

Joey was handcrafted at the Handspring Puppet Company’s factory in Cape Town, South Africa. The horse’s sinew, flesh and bone consist of plywood, molded cane, twine, cables and elastics. Tyvek, the Dupont-made barrier material used in construction, makes up Joey’s mane and tail.

So much effort has resulted in an award-winning triumph that suggests a real beast has taken the stage. The craftsmanship is just that nuanced to allow for such an illusion. But beyond the eye-catching artistry buoying puppets and performers beats the play’s unforgettable heart: a love story between a boy and his horse.

‘WAR HORSE’

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and 8 p.m. May 3, 2 and 8 p.m. May 4 and 1 and 6:30 p.m. May 5

Where: Straz Center, 1010 MacInnes Place, Tampa

Tickets: $30 to $94.50; (813) 229-7827 and www.strazcenter.org

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