When actor Andrew May moved to New York in late 2011 after exploring work in Los Angeles for a year, everything fell into place.
May had just moved to the Big Apple to star in the Off-Broadway hit A Moon for the Misbegotten when he got another big call. The actor — a leading man of the Cleveland stage for more than 20 years — was sitting on a park bench in Brooklyn his second day in New York when a War Horse casting agent called and asked him to try out for the role of German Capt. Friedrich Muller in the North American tour, which comes to Cleveland April 9-21.
The connection was actually a Cleveland one: Drew Barr, who had previously worked with May at Great Lakes Theatre Festival, had been assistant director in the original Broadway production of War Horse. He had heard May was in New York and thought he’d be perfect for the part of the conflicted German officer.
Barr, who recently finished directing War Horse in Australia, had directed May at Cleveland’s classical theater in everything from Moliere’s Tartuffe in 2003 to Kaufman and Hart’s You Can’t Take it With You in 2005, so he knew May’s work intimately.
The actor, born in Hinckley to British parents, served six years as associate artistic director of Great Lakes Theatre Festival until he was laid off in 2009, and had worked eight seasons on staff at Cleveland Play House before that. Some of his most memorable roles were Nathan Pine in the 2002 The Infinite Regress of Human Vanity at Cleveland Play House; and as the ridiculous Bottom in the 2003 A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Salieri in the 2005 Amadeus at Great Lakes.
May grew up mostly in Montreal and Chicago, where he worked in the ’80s. He has called New York his home for nearly two years now.
Here’s what he had to say about his L.A. stint: “Professionally, it was just a hurry-up-and-wait game with all of the different studios, and I can’t wait, so I got to the point where theatrically, people were giving me offers and I was turning them down to do more television, but the television was in a depressed state at the time.” He was in St. Louis on the War Horse tour in late March.
He decided it was time to take action, and returning to stage work in Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten was just the ticket.
“Let’s see how things play out theatrically” in New York, May told himself.
The War Horse schedule fit in perfectly with May’s Off-Broadway gig, with rehearsals beginning in April 2012, just as A Moon for the Misbegotten was closing. War Horse, which won five Tonys, is May’s first Broadway tour.
May has been on the tour for 10 months, and will have performed the show in 31 cities by the time the first leg of the tour ends July 1.
His character, the German officer who is a horse lover, shows up in the second act after the horse Joey, beloved pet of young Albert, has been shipped off to France to serve for the British in World War I.
“The very first charge these horses have, they meet … machine guns that they’ve never seen before and heavy artillery,” May said.
The horses jump barbed wire out of sheer fear, and they and the British are captured by the Germans they were bombarding.
May said his character is different from the other soldiers: “He’s a little bit more aristocratic and artistic than his other German contemporaries in the army. You can tell that perhaps he came from the gentry before the war.’’
Muller admires beautiful horses Joey and his friend, the huge Topthorn, and rescues them. Joey, who is half thoroughbred/half draft horse, is able to work in harness, rare for a thoroughbred, so Muller puts both horses to work pulling an artillery gun and an ambulance.
After Muller’s comrades are blown up in battle, he makes a drastic move. “He decides then and there that he is going to pretend to be a lesser German officer so he doesn’t have to be in charge anymore,” May said.
His incognito act doesn’t last long, and the German army only allows him to live because he’s good with horses that can pull a gun. Ultimately, May’s conflicted character behaves heroically when Joey is in greatest need.
“In many regards, it’s the most complex character in the play,” May said of Muller, who not only works to save the horses and pretends to be someone else, but also becomes a prisoner of his own army and saves French girl Emilie and her mother. May also plays a priest and is the show’s fight captain.
He first saw the Broadway production of War Horse while he was rehearsing in New York for the tour. He became an instant fan of the show’s breathing, galloping, life-sized horse puppets, created by Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa.
The drama had its world premiere in 2007 at the National Theatre of Great Britain before transferring to the West End in 2009, where it continues an open-ended run. The show, which has been seen by more than 2 million people worldwide, closed on Broadway in January and is now playing on an Australia and New Zealand tour, in Berlin and on a UK and Ireland tour.
The show, which the New York Times calls “theatrical magic” and Time Magazine describes as “a landmark theatrical event,” tells an epic tale of courage, loyalty and friendship between a horse and the boy who loves him. The play, based on the 1982 novel by Michael Morpurgo, was adapted into a 2011 movie by Steven Spielberg.
The show’s astounding artistry features two main puppets: horses Joey and Topthorn. They are operated by six rotating teams of three puppeteers each, serving as the horse’s Head, Heart and Hind. These teams receive two weeks of intensive training in puppetry, followed by six or more weeks of rehearsal.
Each horse needs three teams of puppeteers to keep the show going.
“It’s just too physically demanding to do it more than once a day and also to stay in one horse for too long, because you can get hurt,” May said. “The physical demands of what they do are so intense, that you can only tolerate it for so long. It’s like an athletic event.”
The show is populated by about 30 puppets, including lesser draft horses and mustering horses, the precocious goose Coco, and other birds. Puppeteers also operate Joey the foal.
Human puppets represent officers mounted on puppet horses during military charges, and real humans ride the puppet horses, too. May said that during the rehearsal process, he explored riding the puppet Joey with the girl Muller rescues but their combined weight was too much for the puppets to sustain.
The Joey puppet, which weighs 120 pounds, can hold up to 170 pounds. Joey is nearly 10 feet long and 8 feet tall. The life-sized puppet was handmade by 14 people, mostly from cane that was soaked, bent and stained.
An aluminum frame along the horse’s spine allows it to be ridden and georgette fabric creates the skin beneath the frame. The puppet’s tail and ears are moveable because that’s how horses express themselves.
The puppeteer who plays the horse’s Heart wears a harness connecting the puppet’s and the puppeteer’s spines, so his or her movements become the horse’s breathing.
May said that in this technically demanding show, adjustments must sometimes be made. On March 20, the cast had a special rehearsal to adapt some blocking in order to fit on Cleveland’s Palace Theatre stage, which is 1 foot too small for the tour’s set. Scenery also was expected to be adapted for the PlayhouseSquare run.
Technical elements also extend to instruments of war: A huge onstage tank is made of steel, wood and cables, entered by a hydraulic lift and steered and pushed by actors. The tank also has a hydraulic center so its movement looks more mechanical.
“Everything, of course, is run by human power in this play. The concept, the whole conceit, is really, really wonderful,” May said.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.