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Kicking a Dead Horse

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Stephen Rea
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Before you ask, the title of Sam Shepard's new play, Kicking a Dead Horse, is both literal and metaphorical. Hobart Struther, "dealer in American Fine Art," spends no shortage of time assailing his equine mount after it dies shortly after beginning what for him was a vital emotional pilgrimage. While watching the American premiere at The Public Theater, in a coproduction with Ireland's Abbey Theatre, I counted 21 times that foot and horse connected. And each blow was accompanied by the offstage pounding of a tympani that signaled that Something Bigger was going on.

As if we needed the reassurance. Whenever Shepard returns to the West, preconceptions and skies shatter, to be replaced with a clearer-eyed view of the last great American dreamland. He has explored, with great success, the land's impact on individuals (True West, Fool for Love). But with Kicking a Dead Horse, which he also directed, he reminds you he's every bit as good at taking the larger view. He has vividly expanded his field of vision here to be as endless as the great American prairie, to search its expanse for a viable way to explain who we are and what our country is.

Heartfelt though the play frequently is, the title rightly suggests Shepard intends more than merely a myopic valentine. He's also sharply critical of how the West was won and what's been done with it since that winning. Hobart unleashes a lengthy rant near the end about the crimes against humanity that led to its settlement, all but implicating not just the era's bureaucrats but the entire Western world, then and now, as embarking on a campaign of destruction. He also muses that Meriwether Lewis committed suicide because he foresaw what would become of the country he charted.

At times like these, Shepard is not at his best, and he strains when he tries to have Hobart equate the more shadowy side of Manifest Destiny with more modern geopolitical aims. (The invasion of Iraq, while not stated directly, is strongly implicit.) But when he sheathes his soapboxing in favor of viewing those same issues through Hobart's tired eyes, it feels as though you're hearing most of these complaints for the first time. This is in no small part because Hobart seems to be newly discovering them himself.

His quest, he claims, is one for authenticity, the desire to experience the reality behind the works that made him who he is. He's spent his career trafficking in Western art, purchasing it from dusty, out-of-the-way sources and reselling them for enormous profits. But after building a life, raising a family, and reaching his mid 60s, he was unable to shake the notion that what he'd been dealing was only fakery, and that the only way to truly understand the West was to live it.

That fantasy didn't last long. His horse sucked some oats directly into its lung and dropped dead before his trek had started in earnest. Hobart, respectful of the ways of the West, insisted on giving the horse a proper burial to prevent the coyotes and vultures from feeding on its carcass. But upon finishing the hole, he discovers that getting the horse into it is another matter entirely. "Dead weight is famous for being heavier than live," he explains.

What's most surprising is how little of that dead weight exists in a story that at first appears perilously thin. One example: At first, Hobart's psychotic discussions with himself feel like hoary devices to introduce dialogue-drawn tension into the story, but gradually become the method by which he strips away his own layers of artificiality and forces himself to confront his true motives once he can no longer sustain his romantic ideals. (The specific way that those ideals respond won't be revealed here, though it is Shepard at his most brazenly brilliant.)

Every aspect of Hobart - his weariness, his fortitude, his determination, his delusion - comes through in an inspired performance by Stephen Rea. The actor is a model of contemporary old-fashionedness, moving and speaking as though he's endured no shortage of dustups on the trail. But beneath that weathered exterior he hides a coruscating strength that energizes the ostensibly weak Hobart and prove the passion of this man who's out of place in his time and out of time in his place.

Rea makes Hobart's one-man conversations into nail-biting battles of will, and his solo reminiscences into moving elegies for the frontier that's faded more than most of the paintings he's seen depict it. (Brien Vahey's horizon-rich, makeshift graveyard set and John Comiskey's sky-friendly lighting help complete the picture.) That the world's colors seldom appear as bright when seen close up is Shepard's point - to think otherwise, to attempt to change that natural order is futile.

Not that that's ever stopped anyone. "I do not understand why I'm having so much trouble taming the Wild," Hobart says when struggling with one of history's most uncooperative tents. What he doesn't understand is that the Wild can't be tamed - it's as determined to reclaim what belongs to it as humans have been to steal it in the first place. At least Shepard has not faced the same problem in taming his own personal West, a place that, like Kicking a Dead Horse, remains dangerous and exciting in equal measure.

Kicking a Dead Horse
Through August 10
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
Tickets online and Performance Schedule: Public Theater

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