At the play’s heart are the life-sized puppets created by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company.
“It’s a show that utilizes theater at its essence,” Riddleberger says. “It invites the audience to be part of the show. It’s minimalist in its design. The puppets are not realistic. You can look and see that. The show asks the audience to take that last step and believe.”
As an actor and puppeteer, Riddleberger brings the two horses to vivid life.
“This is the first time an animal has been played in a piece of theater, that’s not an animal who sings or speaks,” he says. “They are aesthetically beautiful.”
He says Joey starts as a young, affectionate foal and develops a strong bond with the family’s son. Topthorn, though, is a complete opposite.
“He is trained and bred to be a military horse,” says the performer. “He is statuesque, an alpha male, very aggressive.” He admits it’s a challenge since the two are unique in their personalities, which makes them believable.
The play was turned into a sappy Steven Spielberg film last year but Riddleberger feels the play has a different spin.
“The movie was centered around the boy while the play is first and foremost centered around the horse,” he says. “The movie was a realistic version — you see the horses on a real battlefield. Here we ask the audience to accept what is onstage.”
Ironically, it was Riddleberger’s mother who spurred him to get a part in the production. He saw “War Horse” with her and she later told him, “You should be doing this — why aren’t you?”
He studied at NYU Tisch’s Experimental Theatre Wing, where he learned puppetry. This is his first national tour.
In addition to being family friendly, he thinks “War Horse” has an appeal to the LGBT community.
“This is a play that blurs the line between right and wrong,” he says. “There is a universal message here — it speaks to everyone. It has an ‘us vs them’ mentality, but the English and the German are seen in the same light. I think for the LGBT community, especially during the gay marriage debate, it can be easy to forgot we are all human beings.”
Top photo: ‘War Horse’ uses minimalist puppets and asks the audience ‘to take the last step and believe,’ according to puppeteer Jon Riddleberger. (via Broadway.com)