Twin Cities-bred actor, dancer and singer Rob Laqui is careful when he answers the question of what role he plays in the Broadway tour of “War Horse.” He doesn’t want to be the butt of any jokes — or terrible puns.
“I’m a puppeteer — that’s the best way to describe what I do,” he said in a recent phone interview.
Laqui is part of a three-man team that animates the title horse in the five-time Tony-winning show that opens Wednesday at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis. He plays the equine’s hind end in this work about a horse caught between warring sides on a World War I battlefield.
It’s Laqui’s biggest part in a career that has included international tours with Momix dance company and La MaMa experimental theater company.
“I hope my family and friends will be able to come see me,” Laqui said.
Well, they may not see much more than his feet onstage. And even then, they are not supposed to think of Laqui as a person. If he and his colleagues do their job right, audience members should only be thinking of the whole horse.
Joey, the title horse, has three parts, Laqui explained.
The actor who manipulates the Head is outside of the puppet. The actor who plays the Heart is in the front part inside the puppet and manipulates the two front legs. And the Hind (Laqui) controls the two back legs and the tail.
Laqui’s team, which also plays Topthorn, the other adult horse in the show, includes former Alvin Ailey dancer Christopher Mai as Head and Harlan Bengel, from the Broadway production, as Heart. All three have some dance in their backgrounds, which helps with communication.
“We move as one organism, so we have to signal to each other what our intentions are,” Laqui said.
They do that verbally through the equine vocalizations (the actors are miked). They also communicate nonverbally, including through movement patterns and weight shifts.
“Because we are trapped in the puppet together, we can feel things rippling down the cage.”
Catching the theater bug
How Laqui, 34, got to be what he is onstage is a story that runs from St. Louis Park, where he was born to Filipino-American parents, to Edina, where he grew up. He graduated from St. Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights. In fact, he credits director Wendy Short Hayes of Vista Productions, which is the joint theater department of both St. Thomas Academy and Visitation School and Convent, with infecting him with the stage bug.
“I’m so thrilled for Rob, I can’t stand it,” said Hayes, who recalled being impressed by Laqui’s “beautiful tenor voice and wonderful comedic timing” for school productions of “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Into the Woods.”
Laqui attended St. Mary’s University in Winona, Minn., then transferred to New York University to complete his senior year through a sister-school program.
All the while, he thought that his destiny was in musical theater.
“I was so certain I’d be a song-and-dance man that that’s all I could see for myself,” he said. “But an actor has to be ready for anything.”
He remembers one of his fresh-out-of-college auditions. It was for La MaMa, the New York company famous for its sometimes esoteric and abstract productions.
“I walked in, totally intimidated, and Ellen Stewart [the legendary founder and director] literally gives me the look, up and down, head to toe, and says, ‘You’ll do,’ ” he said. “That was it, and it literally changed the trajectory of my career.”
He toured Europe with “Seven Against Thebes” in one of five productions in all with La MaMa. He considers all that experimental work part of his educational foundation.
“It required all of my physical training, my vocal training, everything,” he said.
He landed with Momix next, working primarily as a dancer for six years. In recent years Laqui has worked with Andrew Rasmussen to produce the indie musicals “Rent” and “Rocky Horror Show” in Minneapolis.
“War Horse” is the culmination of all his training.
“I play the Hind bent over in a semi-lunge,” he said. “I have a good view of everything through the sides but it requires a lot of physical concentration.”
While Laqui thanks his teachers, family and friends, he gives a special shout-out to the show’s physical therapist.
She helps keep all of Laqui’s parts, which also means Joey’s parts, in good working order.