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A CurtainUp Review
Kicking A Dead Horse

Kicking a Dead Horse stops off in London
For the first time in six years, the Artistic Director at the Almeida has invited an outside company to perform there. The explanation for this is that the Almeida has a long list of home grown projects awaiting production but an exception was made for the British Premiere of the Abbey Theatre Dublin’s production of Sam Shepard’s play starring the Irish actor Stephen Rea.

From a European perspective, my first impression was that Sam Shepard has written a play that is in part a homage to Samuel Becket. The hole and the mounds of earth immediately reminded me of Happy Days except that the central character here is not brimming over with hope but with reflection on his life. Like Winnie, Hobart is stuck there with only himself to converse with, but whereas Winnie has an ever present optimism, Hobart seems largely despondent. The journey that Hobart Struther is making in response to the "empty nest" is a kind of return to basics, to a simpler way of living in order to recapture the American Dream but he falls at the first fence when the horse chokes and dies. Is the message here that we do not get another chance? There is a moment when he pauses to admire the pioneers and what they went through to establish themselves in a new life. He talks about trying to regain "the sense of being inside his own skin". Does he feel his life has taken a direction over which he has no control, does he have a sense of inner alienation of being at odds with himself. Certainly his conversation which at times sounded like a married couple bickering, arguing is full of self questioning.

I have a feeling that Shepard’s latest play is a slow burn and that its impact will grow with time as we the audience have time to consider and reflect on it and work out the myriad metaphors. There were two moments when Hobart showed immense compassion. He talks about not allowing the body of the horse to be eaten as carrion, to lie there unburied and he puts great effort into trying to bury him. Later too when he tells us about how Crazy Horse, a legendary Native American chief, was bayoneted to death after having been promised his freedom. Hobert Struther is a character we can relate to, someone we can like.

An interesting deviation with the bare text. The girl who climbs out of the hole, unseen by him, to return to Hobart his hat was wearing a petticoat with straps whereas the text says she should be naked except for the cowboy hat. I think if she had been naked, his missing her would have been felt more strongly by the audience!

I can help Les Gutman with the credits for the makers of the very realistic horse: Sculptors: Padraig McGoran and John O’Connor, Mechanism: Shadow Creations, Assistants: Tony Doody, Rory Doyle, Model Maker Mike McDuff. The horse was impressive, yes, but limited by its dead state whereas the "living" horses for the London showing of Warhorse are state of the art. —Lizzie Loverdige

London Production Notes for Kicking a Dead Horse
Cast: Joanne Crawford and Stephen Rea
Set Design: Brien Vahey
Costume Design: Joan Bergin
Lighting Design: John Comiskey
Sound Design: Dan Moses Schreier
Running Time: I hour ten minutes without an interval
An Abbey Theatre (Ireland)Production in association with The Public Theatre New York
Sponsored by Coutts and Co and as Travel Partner, American Airlines
Box Office: 020 7359 4404
Booking to 20th September 2008
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge on 10th September 2008 performance at the Almeida, Almeida Street, London N1 (Tube: Angel Islington)

— The original review by By Les Gutman

I do not understand why I'm having so much trouble taming the Wild. I've done this already. Haven't I already been through all of this? We closed the Frontier in 1890 something, didn't we? Didn't we already accomplish that? The. . . Iron Horse- Coast to Coast. Blasted all the buffalo out of here. An ocean of bones from Sea to Shining Sea. Trails of Tears. Chased the Heathen Redman down to Florida. Paid the Niggers off in mules and rich black dirt. Whupped the Chinee and strung them up with their own damn pony-tails. Decapitated the Mexicans. Erected steel walls to keep the riff-raff out. Sucked these hills barren of gold. Ripped the top soil as far as the eye can see. Drained the aquifers. Damned up all the rivers and flooded the valleys for Recreational purposes! Ran off the small farmers. Destroyed Education. Turned our children into criminals. Demolished Art! Invaded Sovereign Nations! What more can we possibly do?
---Hobart Struther

Stephen Rea
Stephen Rea (Photo: Joan Marcus)

My CurtainUp editor, Elyse Sommer, is the author of a book called Metaphors Dictionary, which says on the cover it contains 6,500 metaphors. Sam Shepard doesn't say how many metaphors he has worked into his new play, but he's giving Elyse a run for her money.

Kicking a Dead Horse seems to be many things, and it seems Shepard wants it to be all of them. On the one hand, it feels autobiographical — Hobart Struther (Stephen Rea) is undoubtedly a surrogate for the playwright (who is also the director). On another, it is political — Hobart also serves as a stand-in for a certain "cowboy" mentality that plays out all too literally nowadays.

At times, the play is very specific, as we focus on the very real emotional not to mention phsyical crisis Hobart is confronting somewhere in the Badlands — "Horizon to horizon. Far as the eye can see. No road- no car- no tiny house- no friendly Seven Eleven. Nada." Elsewhere, it is long lens historic —- the quote above should give that flavor. The themes of Dead Horse sometimes hint at classic Shepard, and that glorious language of his is present in abundancem, yet it is an exercise in retrospection and introspection that seems unlike anything he has ever done before.

What all of this means is hard to say, though fun to ponder. What we see, however, is fairly easy to describe. Hobart struck it rich buying western art off the walls of saloons while he traveled around on horses like the one that's dead on the stage now. Those were what he called his "truer days". Buying low and selling high was his ticket out of the old West and onto Park Avenue. But once he and his wife became "empty nesters," he became stir-crazy — "Sitting around, folded up on sofas, sipping tea and reading 'The Week in Review'— the world going up in smoke across the blue Atlantic. Internecene warfare. Pathetic stuff. Truly. Impotent. What's there to do?" — and longed to head back to the land of "truth". Those paintings had become his "demons"; he needed to confront them.

As we find him, he has dug a grave for his old "colt" that let him down — the horse kicked the bucket on day one of his western journey, and now all Hobart can do is return the favor. In the process, the magic of the old West has turned black, and it's time for Hobart to repay old debts.

This is a one-man play, but not really. There is a woman who materializes before the end but never speaks; of more significance, perhaps, are two other characters: Hobart spends a good part of the play in vivid conversation with himself (or some variation thereof), and of course there's also that dead horse. Though he does turn to the audience to narrate or explain, its these "dialogue" that make this horse worth riding.

Brien Vahey's rocky round platform fronting an often vivid western sky well situates the show. John Comiskey's lighting, which at times shifts quite meta-theatrically, underscores the play's tones beautifully. Costumes and sound are both quite fine. What's missing from the credits is the person(s) responsible for the horse, an artistic and technological marvel that deserves acknowledgement.

Shepard wrote this play for Stephen Rea, and the Irish actor, best known for portraying the central character in The Crying Game, delivers a remarkable performance in return. Exhibiting an implacable restlessness, he displays hints of Hobart's soul as he frisks his mind for an explanation. Having escaped the "otherness" of Park Avenue (yes, the existential themes run deep here too), Hobart is all too aware he is an alien in his old stomping grounds. (At one point, Hobart mentions a doorman; Rea stops, looks around and says the word again, his face practically pleading for a white-gloved hand he seemingly took for granted.) The irishman, on the other hand, seems right at home.

There is of course this irony (did I mention that the play also offers up a healthy dose of them?) in Rea's personal alienage in relation to this material, though if anything it renders it all the more astonishing. And to confuse matters even more, I should add that the ghost of another Irishman is very much in the house; I refer to Samuel Beckett, to whom this work at times comes close to paying homage.

Performance and poetry notwithstanding, this piece throws many more than one too many ideas out over the apron. Is it a writer's exercise in psychoanalysis? It would seem so. It is wonderful to hear these fresh words from one of our true American playwrights, but the whole often feels like such a mélange of thoughts that one can't help but think — or maybe I mean hope — that it is still a work in progress. This seems like it could be the start of the play Shepard has spent his whole life preparing to write.

Kicking A Dead Horse
Written and directed by Sam Shepard
with Elissa Piszel and Stephen Rea
Set Design: Brien Vahey
Costume Design: Joan Bergin
Lighting Design: John Comiskey
Sound Design: Dan Moses Schreier
Running Time: 80 minutes including no intermission
A co-production with the Abbey Theatre (Ireland)
Public Theater (Martinson), 425 Lafayette (Astor Pl/E. 4th St)
Telephone (212) 967-7555
From 6/25/08; opening 7/14/08; closing 7/27/08--extended before opening and now closing 8/10/08.
TUES and SUN @7, WED - SAT @8, SAT @2, SUN @3; $50 (through 7/27), then $60, students $25, rush $20 (1 hour prior to curtain, cash only)
Reviewed by Les Gutman based on 7/11/08 performance
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