'War Horse' puppet is more than the sum of its parts

Introducing puppet
"War Horse" actors Jon Riddleberger, left, and Alex Morf introduce the play's lead puppet, Joey, to the media at the Orpheum Theater in Minneapolis, Minn. Wednesday, June 12, 2013. The horse, which is eight feet tall, 120 pounds and is controlled by three people, stars in the play that opens June 12, 2013.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

If it walks like a horse and talks like a horse, and looks like a horse, especially from a distance, does that make it a horse?

In the case of Joey the answer is no -- and yes.

Standing eight feet tall, Joey walked on Hennepin Avenue today. The star of the Tony Award-winning show "War Horse," which opens at the Orpheum Theater in Minneapolis Wednesday night, is a puppet which requires three human operators.

Just ask actor Alex Morf. In "War Horse" he plays Albert, the young man who in the darkening days before World War I raises Joey from a foal.

"It's amazingly easy to forget the horse isn't real," Morf said. "It happened the first time I ever saw the horse, and I looked at him and I thought, 'That horse is looking at me, and it's really interested in me.' And it happens to the audience every night and it happens to me every night."

"War Horse" follows Joey as he is sold to the British army and sent to France as the Great War begins.

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Demonstrating making horse sounds
From left, Jon Riddleberger, Patrick Osteen and Rob Laqui, the three puppeteers who control the horse in the play "War Horse," demonstrate making the sounds of the horse at the Orpheum Theater in Minneapolis, Minn. Wednesday, June 12, 2013. Laqui, who controls the hind of the horse, was born and raised in the Twin Cities.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Morf is no stranger to Twin Cities theater. He studied at St. Olaf College and afterwards worked in a number of theaters in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Now he has been on the road with War Horse for over a year.

Joey is made from bent bamboo covered with brown mesh. There is also an aluminum frame which allows Morf to jump up to ride on Joey's back.

"His mane is made out of Tyvek paper, which you might recognize because that's what they make FedEx envelopes out of," Morf said.

Morf pauses to comfort the horse which seems nervous at the sight of observers. But it is as if a spell has captured them. While the three puppeteers are plainly in sight, everyone seems to have forgotten this life-sized puppet walking through the theater lobby isn't a real horse. People gasp when Morf urges Joey up on his hind legs.

Puppeteer Jon Riddleberger stands outside the body and controls Joey's head. It looks as if he is holding the reins, but actually Riddleberger is using a stick which doubles as a control for the horse's ears. Inside Joey's chest is puppeteer Patrick Osteen, who is called the heart. Osteen controls the front legs, and makes the slight movements to make Joey appear to breathe. Rob Laqui is the hind -- the puppeteer at the back of the horse who controls the back legs and the tail.

The tail and the ears are hugely important to the performance because Joey uses them to express emotions.

Laqui grew up in the Twin Cities. It was tough when he first took on the role, he said.

"I mean, I remember being in rehearsal early on and there were moments when I was like, 'I don't know if I can do this,' Laqui recalled. "Like the endurance it takes just to be in horse for that amount of time."

But after spending time rehearsing and on horse farms to observe how the animals move, Laqui has formed a remarkable team with Riddleberger and Osteen.

Riddleberger says they are all performing very different tasks, but have learned to work together in such a way that not only brings Joey to life, but allows them to tell a story about a horse going off into battle.

"This horse is not my horse," Riddleberger said. "It's my horse and Patrick's horse and Rob's horse, which is different from what my horse would ever be. My horse would probably be pretty boring. But this is an exciting horse because there is that tension and collaboration between the three of us and we end up with something that is greater than the three of us."

War Horse
Handled by actor Jon Riddleberger, Joey, the lead puppet in "War Horse," meets with a Minneapolis Police Department horse outside the Orpheum Theater in Minneapolis, Minn. Wednesday, June 12, 2013. The horse, which is eight feet tall, 120 pounds and is controlled by three people, stars in the play that opens June 12, 2013.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Even after a year on the show, Morf said he is still captivated by the way audience members get swept away by Joey.

"It's amazing to cry because you love this fake horse so much," Morf said. "Even though you can see it's just cane and aluminum. And it's amazing that you love that horse so much that every night we have people cry out for the horse at certain points."

The crowd in the lobby won over, Joey then took the acid test. As a morning rainstorm beat down on Hennepin Avenue, he walked slowly out of the theater door. There two Minneapolis police horses stood waiting. At first they didn't seem to know what to make of Joey, and then one of them, Crystal, leaned forward and began to nuzzle the War Horse.