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Photo courtesy Brinkhoff/Mögenburg
The World War I drama tells the story of Albert (right) and his horse, Joey.
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The Tony award-winning play War Horse, based on Michael Morpugo’s World War I novel — and featuring amazing puppetry work — opens Tuesday at the Landmark Theater, kicking off Broadway in Richmond’s 2013-2014 season.
I caught up with cast member Danny Yoerges by phone a few weeks ago, while the show was in Calgary, Alberta. Yoerges, who grew up in Alexandria and studied theater at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, serves as the head puppeteer for Joey or Topthorn, two horses whose characters are central to the story. (Joey is shipped off to war from an English farm, and when he meets up with Topthorn, the horse of a British officer, the two compete for dominance and eventually form a friendship. Meanwhile, Albert, the boy Joey left behind, sets off to find him.)
Yoerges has been on tour with War Horse for almost a year and a half, and it’s the first time he’s portrayed a character that isn’t human — his previous roles include Rolf in The Sound of Music at Olney Theatre Center and Dumaine the Younger in Shakespeare Theatre Co.’s All’s Well That Ends Well, both in the Washington area; and Henry in the Queens Players’ production of Henry V in New York City. "Part of why I got this job was my school program [at UNC] has a strong movement component," he says.
“I’ve learned a lot about myself as an actor while I’ve been puppeteering,” says Yoerges, who graduated in 2009. “Portraying a nonspeaking character is one of the most gratifying things I’ve ever gotten a chance to do.”
Without words, he and two other cast members, known as the “heart” and “hind” puppeteers, bring the horse to life through movement and sound. "We get to create the story every single night,” he says. The framework remains the same, but the horses’ reaction to what’s going on can vary. “It’s hard to predict what a real horse would do,” Yoerges says. “We like to observe horses constantly and pepper the show with unexpected reactions, and the actors love that.” Horse lovers in the audience often pick up on bits of horse behavior that rings true to them, he adds.
Handspring Puppet Co. made the puppets used in War Horse. The horses are made of cane wood, nylon mesh, aluminum and steel. Together, the three puppeteers shoulder the weight, which can be as much as 240 pounds with a rider on top. “It’s definitely an athletic experience, to say the least,” Yoerges says.
“People have an impression in their mind of what a puppet show is,” he adds. “With a show like this, the horses are such lifelike models onstage, the puppeteers completely drop away.”
As head puppeteer, Yoerges is fully visible to the audience, but his focus is on his character. “When you’re operating the puppets, your attention is so fully invested in what the horse is thinking,” he says. “I’m staring into Joey’s or Topthorn’s eyes the whole time. … You forget there’s even an audience out there.”
Being on the road with the show has taken Yoerges around the country, something he’s written about in a blog. “I really like the Pacific Northwest, Seattle and Portland,” he says, recalling some of the highlights. “We went to Boise, Idaho, first last year — Boise is a great town. San Francisco is unbelievable.” Yoerges says that Richmond is familiar territory because he has friends who attended college at Virginia Commonwealth University. One friend from high school is David Pijor of the Richmond Comedy Coalition — the two were in ComedySportz together, he says.
The last stop on the U.S. portion of the tour is Madison, Wis., in June of 2014. Then, War Horse will head to Winnipeg in Manitoba, Canada, before taking off for Japan, he says.
In Richmond, the show runs through Nov. 3. As of Monday afternoon, tickets were still available for most performances; prices range from $28 to $78. They're available online through Broadway in Richmond, the Landmark Theater or ETIX; at the Landmark or CenterStage box offices; or by calling (800) 514-3849. If you see the show and forget that you’re watching puppets, it will be in large part due to Yoerges and his teammates.
“The story is so huge and powerful, you have no choice but to go along with it,” he says. “The reason why it’s different from going to a movie is the audience is part of a creative experience.”