It starts simply with just a pair of birds, suspended by long poles, crisscrossing in the air high above the stage at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater. Then you see him, young Joey, a lanky foal -- he breathes, his small chest rising and falling; his ears cock; the tail swishes. He trots, snorts, whinnies, nibbles grass. Soon, he befriends a lonely teenage lad . . . and grows, transforming into a magnificent, proud creature, so lifelike you almost forget he's a mere contraption of wood and netting.
Joey -- the hero of "War Horse," a stunning new play opening Thursday -- is horse first, puppet second.
"I remember seeing the horses at the audition and thinking, the creations are so beautiful," says Prentice Onayemi, an actor and puppeteer in the cast.
Puppetry -- in plays geared toward grown-ups -- is an intriguing trend. Julie Taymor's sculptural animals in "The Lion King" and the horny hand-and-rod puppets of "Avenue Q" helped pave the way for more recent puppet fare, such as Anthony Minghella's 2006 "Madama Butterfly" at the Metropolitan Opera (using a Japanese bunraku-style puppet), or The Public Theater's recent "Compulsion" (starring Mandy Patinkin opposite an evocative Anne Frank marionette). Even "The Addams Family" musical has puppets.
"But in cultures all over the world," she notes, "it's viewed as a respectable adult art form, and shows like 'War Horse' are helping open the American public's eyes to that."
A farm boy's horseBased on a novel by Michael Morpurgo, "War Horse" tells the story of Joey and Albert, a farm boy who finds kinship with the horse and is devastated when Joey is sold to the British cavalry, to serve on the battlefields during World War I.
The puppets -- including Joey as a foal, adult Joey, other horses, birds and one feisty duck -- were created by South Africa's renowned Handspring Puppet Company, choreographed by actor and physical theater expert Toby Sedgwick.
"It started in 2005 with five or six of us in a room with no puppets, no script, wondering how to put this story onstage," Sedgwick says. "I got to studying horses every day, videotaping their behavior." (Sedgwick happens to live in Surrey, horse country outside London.)
Things got trickier once they had their horse puppets, three of which were to be maneuvered by three puppeteers each -- one at the "head" (standing beside the horse, manipulating neck and ears), one at the "heart" (inside the horse, working front legs) and one at the "hind" (inside, working rear legs).
The production, which started at the National Theatre of Great Britain, is now playing at the West End's New London Theatre. And Steven Spielberg plans to release his film version later this year, starring Brits David Thewlis and Emily Watson.
But producers decided to go with an American cast for the Broadway version, auditioning puppeteers, actors and dancers.
"It wasn't so much an audition as it was a workshop," recalls Jonathan David Martin, who enjoyed the three-hour sessions where performers tested puppets. Martin had no puppetry or horse experience, save for a horse backpacking trip as a kid.
Onayemi had some puppetry on his resumé, and Jeslyn Kelly, an actress and dancer, had choreographed last year's production of "Equus" at East Hampton's Guild Hall.
"They were really looking for people who wanted to work as an ensemble," Kelly says.
A head, a heart and a hind
The three were cast together as one of three rotating "Joey" teams -- Onayemi as "head," Martin as "heart," Kelly as "hind" -- each visible onstage, dressed in period garb.
"This seeing the puppeteer is relatively new in the U.S.," says Barnhart, ticking off the biggies: Howdy Doody; Kukla, Fran and Ollie; the "Sesame Street" Muppets -- puppeteers all hidden.
Sedgwick says he was skeptical at having 10 legs visible -- four horse, six human. He feared Joey would look like a caterpillar.
But part of the fun, Barnhart explains, "is the whole 'meta' aspect, where audiences see puppets and the puppeteers puppeteering them." It heightens enjoyment, she adds, unlike a magic trick, where pulling the curtain back to reveal how it's done kills the illusion.
Sedgwick found, if the performers' moves are truly horselike, the puppet image takes over audiences' imagination.
"It's a fun challenge to react as a horse does," Kelly says.
"They're fight-or-flight animals, so decisions are very clear -- and quick," Onayemi says, snapping his fingers.
Most of their movements are improvised, with just basic blocking plotted out.
The three have found, after working together almost daily for months, they now often move and breathe as one.
"If I lose track for a minute and check back in, I'm still breathing with Jonathan, or our feet are still in line after some crazy turnaround move," Kelly says. "Those kind of magic things are happening."
For audiences, part of the pleasure seems due to an almost innate fascination with horses.
"There's an incredible mixture of grace and strength in a horse, and I think that's what makes it so attractive," Sedgwick says.
But without the puppet, such an enigmatic animal would be all but impossible to employ onstage. "Puppets are metaphor incarnate," Barnhart says. "Bringing them to life is almost superhuman. Here's this puppet doing things you could never do otherwise. It's not real, yet we respond on a visceral level. It's almost alchemical."
And irresistible, explaining why Sedgwick won the 2008 Olivier Award for best theater choreography, beating out pros in hit musicals such as "Hairspray."
"I wasn't expecting to win at all," Sedgwick says. "I was reading the program for the next event. So it was a bit of a shock, that one. But a nice shock."
Four legged heroes
Called the "war to end all wars," World War I exacted a horrific toll. And not just on humans. The British Army took 1 million English horses to fight in France. Only 62,000 returned, according to a program note in the "War Horse" Playbill. Overall, an estimated 8 million horses perished on the battlefields.