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War Horse’ to gallop onto Columbus stage

Courtesy of Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

Making a horse come to life onstage might seem like an ambitious task, but with a little imagination and an elaborate set of puppets, “War Horse” proves it is possible.

The acclaimed play, which earned five Tony Awards in 2011, including Best Play, is scheduled to make its Columbus premiere 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Ohio Theatre.

Based on the novel of the same name by Michael Morpurgo, “War Horse” chronicles the story of Joey, a horse that has been enlisted to fight for the English in World War I, and his master, a young man named Albert who follows him into battle.

Joey is brought to life on stage by a team of three puppeteers who, using puppets that are handmade in South Africa and take two years to create, are able to embody a convincing horse that can breathe and gallop onstage.

“It’s tremendous – it’s something no one’s ever done before,” said “War Horse” cast member Michael Stewart Allen. “The horses move and breathe and act like real animals. There’s a magical moment in the show where I think the audience really forgets the puppeteers are behind them … and at the end, most of the people are overwhelmed with emotion.”

But acting alongside the puppet is not the only challenge for the 35 members of the “War Horse” cast. All of the actors, including Allen, are tasked with playing multiple characters.

Allen, who plays Sgt. Allan in the first act and the villainous Private Klausen in the second act, said it is both difficult and rewarding to take on more than one role.

“It gives me a chance to stretch and do something different,” Allen said. “It keeps the show fun and fresh every night. And it’s always fun to be the bad guy.”

To prepare for his roles, Allen said he read books about World War I for firsthand accounts of trench warfare. He and the other cast members also visited stables to learn how to interact with the horses, which Allen said has been helpful when acting alongside Joey’s puppeteers.

“We’re always evolving and learning on this tour,” Allen said. “When people write books about the history of theater, (‘War Horse’) will be in there because of the way we’re making it.”

Kathryn Miller, a second-year in theater and strategic communication, said she saw the stage adaptation of “War Horse” in Toronto and was impressed with the play.

“It’s amazing, both visually and storyline-wise,” Miller said. “And the puppet work is brilliant.”

Although most people are probably familiar with the 2011 film adaptation of “War Horse,” which was helmed by director Steven Spielberg and nominated for six Academy Awards, Allen said the stage version is much more emotional.

Julia Langholt, a fourth-year in theater and mechanical engineering, said that after seeing the film adaptation of “War Horse,” she wants to see how Joey is portrayed in the play.

“I really want to see how they handle the character of the horse on the stage,” Langholt said. “Apparently it’s amazing and probably even more effective because it’s more abstract.”

Allen said this opinion of the show is what he hears from most. 

“Most people that we have talked to love the play more than the movie because it’s more special in how it’s told,” Allen said. “The artistry in the theater and the theatricality of the piece allow the story to be told in a better way.”

That emotion, Allen said, is what he loves about being part of “War Horse.”

“It’s so great to be in a show that really moves people and affects people and makes them think and feel and laugh and cry,” Allen said.

“War Horse” will be at the Ohio Theatre through April 28. Tickets for the show begin at $35 and are available at the CAPA Ticket Center and through Ticketmaster. Students are also eligible to purchase up to two tickets at 50 percent off each (plus service charges) by presenting a valid student ID in person at the CAPA Ticket Center during the two hours prior to each performance.

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