War Horse, Sept. 24 to 29 at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, 630 Hamilton St., Vancouver. Tickets start at $35, available at ticketmaster.ca.
It's easy for the cast members of War Horse to forget that their galloping, whinnying, tail-swishing co-stars are not living creatures.
The equine actors in the play are actually intricate life-sized puppets, each operated by three puppeteers controlling the head, the heart and the hind.
"It's funny, because you want to treat them as animals, but they're not, they're humans manipulating these inanimate objects," says Vancouver native David Hurwitz, who plays Billy in the National Theatre of Great Britain's North American touring production of War Horse, premiering in Vancouver at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre Sept. 24 to 29.
The Tony-Award-winning play tells the story of young Albert and his beloved horse, Joey, who has been sold to the cavalry and enlisted to fight for the English in the First World War. Joey is caught in enemy crossfire and Albert, unable to forget his horse but not yet old enough to join the army, sets out to find Joey and bring him home.
The play is based on the children's novel by Michael Morpurgo - also the inspiration for Steven Spielberg's 2011 movie of the same name.
Hurwitz's character, Billy, is Albert's older cousin and a real bully.
"He's aggressive, he tries to start fights with him. He ultimately wants the horse," Hurwitz says, explaining Billy's antagonistic behaviour ultimately stems from jealousy.
South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company built all the puppets in the show using steel, leather and aircraft cables to create the horses' flanks, hides and sinews. The puppeteers operate pulleys and gears, co-ordinating their movements to imitate the subtle characteristics of a horse.
In researching his role, Hurwitz went horseback riding and says the feeling of riding a real horse is remarkably similar to riding one of the War Horse puppets.
"The puppeteers do such an amazing job of creating these characters, these animal characters, and the puppets are so lifelike that it's actually very similar," he says.
The performers have to keep safety top of mind to avoid accidentally hurting the puppeteers.
"There's two people underneath you that are carrying all your weight, including the horse puppet, so you have to be really cautious," he says. "Injuries can happen really easily if you tug on the reins of a horse really hard, or push a horse."
"It's all about just thinking about the other actors and just trying to create the illusion that it is an actual animal without actually being that aggressive."
The production also features smaller, simpler, but equally lifelike puppets such as crows, swallows and geese.
Hurwitz, 31, has performed twice on the Queen Elizabeth Theatre stage - once with the Vancouver Opera and once with the Livent production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat in the children's choir. It's the same venue where he first fell in love with the theatre when, at age six, his parents took him and his siblings to see Peter Pan.
"I was just in awe. I will always remember that production," he says. "I set out this sort of prophecy for myself at a very young age to be making a living in theatre, so I'm really lucky that I'm fulfilling that dream right now."
Hurwitz graduated from Langara College's Studio 58 program in 2005 and has since settled in Toronto. War Horse is the largest-scale production he has been cast in. He started with the North American touring production in February and will be on the road until next August.
"I've always wanted to tour North America so it's kind of a dream come true," he says, adding how excited he is to bring War Horse to his hometown.
Hurwitz has an idea why the play won five 2011 Tony Awards, including Best Play, and has been seen by four million people since its 2007 London premiere.
"The core of the story is about a relationship between a boy and his horse, so I think it's that sort of unconditional love between humans and their pets that everyone can relate to," he says, adding the show appeals to a wide audience.
"There's these amazing folk songs, there's beautiful orchestrations, there are these breathtaking puppets, there's this heartwarming story, so there's really something for everybody."
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