Joey’s gait, his nods and even his shudders and neighs seem so lifelike that it’s easy to forget the star of “War Horse” is a life-size puppet. One puppeteer in a harness stands under the puppet’s underbelly to operate the back legs and tail, another controls the front legs and breathing, and a third, who is standing, manipulates the head and ears.
“We dare you not to believe these horses are real in the first five minutes of the show,” said lead puppeteer James Duncan, before the theatrical production, which runs through Sunday, opened with the first of eight performances in Shea’s Performing Arts Center.
Duncan and three other puppeteers discussed stagecraft in front of a fascinated audience Tuesday in Shea’s Grand Lobby.
Joey, who is just under 10 feet long and 8 feet tall and weighs about 120 pounds, also made an entrance before being taken outside the theater to pose for photographs with two mounted patrol horses.
“The horse is amazingly lifelike, and the way the puppeteers move is unbelievable,” said Michael Kait, who brought a class of eighth-graders from Waterfront Elementary School to the theater. The students have been assigned to read the 1982 children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo and are seeing the play tonight.
Kait said he hopes the students will develop an appreciation for the teamwork necessary to operate the puppets, as well as for the story’s historic value.
Watching outside, Velma Palmer, of Cheektowaga, was blown away, too, by the horse.
“I thought it was excellent,” she said. “It reminded me of ‘Lion King.’ ”
The show relies on old-fashioned puppetry – with simple mechanisms, including cables and bicycle brakes. Electronics and robotics are nowhere to be found.
The horse puppets – there are eight in the show, two of them operated by three people – are made primarily of cane over a hosiery-like fabric, with an aluminum spine that allows the puppets to be ridden, and durable plastic-like paper manes.
Duncan explained how the puppeteers learned their roles, first by concentrating on walking, trotting, galloping, pulling a plow or limping as a horse would. They examined horse behavior and watched films of horse movements. Their ability to work together involved using counts so the horse’s gait would become automatic. Even breathing became synchronized.
The story of “War Horse” concerns a young boy, Albert, who acquires Joey, first seen as a foal, and raises him before the horse is sold to the Army to support Britain’s World War I effort. Albert enlists and travels to France on a treacherous journey to find Joey.
“What’s really beautiful about our story is we like to look at it as an anthem for peace, even though we are talking about the pains of war as well,” Duncan said. “We look to show both sides, and that there really is a right and wrong in things like this,” Duncan said.
The National Theatre of London in 2006 commissioned the Handspring Puppet Company to make the life-size horse puppets. The play has played there continuously since 2007 and has had runs in New York City, Toronto, Australia and Germany. The production on stage at Shea’s is in the second year of a North American tour.
While the audience Tuesday afternoon might have been wowed by Joey, there were two noticeable skeptics.
The horses outside the theater gave indifferent gazes, before the larger horse appeared agitated and backed away from the unusual visitor, star status or not.