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Photo by Tina Eshleman
Puppeteer Curtis Jordan helps Joey say hello to a guest at the Landmark.
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The star of the show that will kick off Broadway in Richmond’s 2013-2014 season trotted onto the Landmark Theater stage yesterday, snorting, whinnying and swishing his tail. Joey, the central character of the Tony Award-winning play War Horse, is an approximately 80-pound puppet made in South Africa (at a cost of about $100,000) and brought to life by three physically and vocally adroit puppeteers.
The puppeteers, who have appeared in London and Broadway productions of the show, are part of a six-week promotional tour that headed to Memphis, Tenn., after leaving the Landmark.
Introducing the show, production representative Scott Tucker said one of the challenges is to convey the epic scale of its World War I setting and to tell a story in which the central character is a puppet. The story (for those who haven’t been to Broadway or seen Steven Spielberg’s screen version) is based on a novel by Michael Morpugo. Joey, beloved by the boy Albert, is sold to the cavalry by Albert’s family and winds up serving in France, on both sides of the war. When Albert is old enough to leave home, he goes in search of his old friend. (Morpugo tells how the story came about in this video interview.)
“We’re asking the audience to come with us on an imaginative journey,” says Curtis Jordan, a native of Des Moines, Iowa, who recently finished three years in the London production of War Horse. Jordan says he hopes to have a role in the touring production that comes to Richmond — noting that it’s currently being cast.
The role of the puppeteers, he says, is not just movement, but expressing Joey’s emotions, which, he says, can be “as complex as playing Hamlet.”
The puppets are made of cane and plywood, with a structure of aluminum and a "skin" of stretched fabric. They're operated using cords, levers and bicycle brake cables. Last night, Jordan operated Joey’s head — wiggling his ears, tossing his mane — while Isaac Woofter handled the center and front legs, and Lute Breuer served as the “hind” puppeteer.
Woofter, the “heart” puppeteer, spent a year and a half in the show at Lincoln Center Theater in New York. He says his specialty is not puppets but rather commedia dell’arte, and he’s often appeared in Shakespeare and Molière productions.
Breuer, the hind puppeteer, was also in the Lincoln Center production, though he and Woofter were not operating the same horse. He says he does not plan to be part of the touring production. “This is a fun way to revisit it without the pain and ice and recovery,” he says of the current promotional trip.
To play the physically demanding role, the puppeteers have to “stretch, stretch, stretch all the time” and economize their movements, he says. “It’s really a marathon.”
War Horse will run from Oct. 29 to Nov. 3 at the Landmark. Other shows in the line-up are:
— The male a cappella group Straight No Chaser, Nov. 17 at Richmond CenterStage’s Carpenter Theatre;
— Cirque Dreams Holidaze, featuring an original music score and seasonal favorites as well as “gigantic gifts, colossal candy canes and towering soldiers,” Nov. 29-30 at Landmark;
— Gomez, Morticia and the rest of The Addams Family in a macabre musical comedy Feb. 7-8 at Landmark;
— The Rat Pack is Back, recreating the Vegas nightclub act with Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin and Joey Bishop at Carpenter Theatre March 28-29;
— The return of Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz at the Landmark April 23 to May 4.
— And finally, Jersey Boys, the story of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons (and winner of the 2006 Tony Award for best musical), at the Landmark from Jan. 7-19, 2014.