(Photo by Brinkhoff Mogenburg)
Christopher Mai is a dancer by training, and has done some previous work with puppets. But for his latest role? ''We studied the emotional aspects of horses [and their] habitual action – eating, grazing, aggressiveness, sensitiveness,'' he says.
War Horse, in other words, is not a typical day on stage for Mai. It's also far from a typical night out at the theater for the audience. The innovative, multiple Tony Award-winning play focuses on the role horses played in the battles of World War I, and more specifically on the bond between horses and humans. But unlike Steven Spielberg's sentimental film adaptation, the original play goes with sophisticated – and sensitive – puppets. You'll leave with newfound appreciation for both the magnificence of horses and the artistry of puppeteers.
A San Francisco native, Mai is the puppet captain for the play's first national tour, now running at the Kennedy Center. Mai is also head puppeteer of the show's lead horse, Joey, standing in front of the large, life-size puppet while two other puppeteers control the front and hind legs from the inside. Mai explains that the puppeteers simulate breathing by slightly bending or straightening their knees – in unison. They also work as a team to make every naturalistic move and amplify every sound – ''communicating with each other via breath.'' Based on what one of the show's human characters is doing to the horse, for example, one puppeteer might give a short in-breath, which instructs the others to tense up and perhaps start a sigh or a neigh.
''The biggest challenge really is ensuring that this puppet doesn't die onstage,'' Mai says. ''Not like physically die … but keeping it alive – making this puppet real, making it breathe.'' It demands full attention at all times from the puppeteers. It's intense work.
''Every single night it's so new and so fresh because [Joey's] technically a horse, an animal onstage,'' Mai says. ''He does not know what's going to happen next. So every reaction is new. By the end of the show I'm almost in tears as well.''
War Horse runs to Nov. 11 at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Tickets are $25 to $175. Call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.