Sam Shepard’s new play Kicking a Dead Horse, directed by the playwright himself and starring the acclaimed Irish actor Stephen Rea, is a black comedy with a grim message. The tale making its American premier at the Public Theater is a potent metaphor about our current political atmosphere and the barren existence most Americans lead in pursuit of false values. Covering familiar Shepard themes and philosophies the thought provoking story is an inventive homage to Beckett. Although beautifully acted the evening doesn’t go far enough theatrically, and is continuously upstaged by the carcass of the character in the title, a dead horse.
The 80 minute solo work debuted at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre last year with Stephen Rea playing Hobart Struther, a Manhattan art dealer, who made a fortune selling “sentimental claptrap” of the Old West. Here is a man, who sold out and now in middle age has become too set in his ways to change. Rea turns in a heartfelt performance as Struther, who embarks on horseback to search for authenticity in the bleak flatlands of the West. When the play opens we discover Struther’s dead horse lying prone on stage behind a huge grave that Struther obscured from sight is digging. We see shovels of dirt flying out the hole and hear Struther speaking before he eventually climbs out himself to contemplate his work.
Now stranded in the middle of the desert with all his gear and the dead horse that once served him loyally, Struther feel compelled to bury him. As he tries to move the horse into the makeshift grave, he speaks to himself and directly to the audience. We learn how he became rich exploiting Americana from the West and married a beautiful woman from whom he is now estranged. At a dead end in life he had hopped his latest adventure would help him rediscover his true self, instead he finds himself stranded in a barren wasteland with a nagging conscience.
Struther in his frustrations attacks not only the dead horse, but himself in his dire observations about America. The playwright drawing from Beckett clearly intended the proceedings to be broadly funny as Struther repeatedly attacks the horse, while bemoaning his predicament.
This is well covered territory for the playwright that has given us Buried Child, Fool for Love, True West and others, but here the debate is not with a father, a son, a brother, or lover, but with himself. The internal monologue while amusing plays like a clever gimmick with Rea talking on different voices. There is the sudden appearance of a beautiful young woman emerging from the grave scantily clad and wearing a cowboy hat. Other than that nothing much happens in Shepard’s rather tame staging.
By: Gordin & Christiano
Originally Published in Dans Papers
Kicking a Dead Horse opened at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street between Astor Place and West 4th, on July 14. For tickets call 212-967-7555 or visit the box office.