EmptyVenue: The Martinson at the Public Theater, New York (Through Aug. 10)
Is it possible for a playwright to kick a dead horse thematically? Because that is what Sam Shepard does with his latest play, the too-aptly titled "Kicking a Dead Horse," now receiving its American premiere at the Public Theater in a co-presentation with Ireland's Abbey Theatre.
A new play from one of America's most inventive dramatists should be an occasion for cheering. But this 75-minute eulogy for the American West, and for the USA in general, covers ground that Shepard's plays have trod in the past and better: "True West," "The Tooth of Crime" and the 2004 "The God of Hell," to name a few.
The best thing about "Kicking a Dead Horse," which Shepard also directed, is the grotesque, amusing, opening image.
On the Martinson's deep proscenium, a pale blue tarp is swiftly removed to reveal the body of a dead horse, which lies on the upstage side of a large, rectangular hole in the ground. Little else is visible: a blanket and a couple of saddlebags and, in the distance, mesas dotting the horizon that are almost white under the hot sun of John Comiskey's lighting, .
The dead animal belongs to Hobart Struther (Stephen Rea), who soon climbs out of the hole, panting and cursing. Indeed, one of his first gestures -- you guessed it -- is to kick the horse that has betrayed this foray into the badlands.
A successful art dealer, Struther is trying to recapture the freedom and spirit he possessed as a younger man and, by extension, revisit the self-reliant life of the Old West. Burying an enormous horse is not on the agenda. But the task possesses him and, after much soul-searching -- not to mention thunder, lightning, rain and the dream image of a silent young woman (Elissa Piszel) -- the job leads to the play's ironic if predictable end.
Shepard has given his central character an alter ego, a kind of inner voice, who frequently emerges to bring Struther back to practical matters (like how he's going to survive without a horse).
This feels like an awfully tired device for someone of Shepard's expertise to use, and stage and film star Rea goes about it surprisingly awkwardly. You're not always sure which voice is speaking when.
But what's more disappointing is Shepard's inability to find a new locale and fresh language for his dismay at America's downward trajectory. Here we are again searching for the Old West, which is now farther back in the mists of time than it ever was. The most that Struther (and Shepard) can do is to list America's sins, from killing off the buffalo to invading "sovereign nations."
Shepard wants to transform his anger into art. But "Kicking a Dead Horse," as the title suggests, is an exercise in frustration.
Cast: Stephen Rea, Elissa Piszel. Playwright: Sam Shepard. Director: Sam Shepard. Scenic designer: Brien Vahey. Costume designer: Joan Bergin. Lighting designer: John Comiskey. Sound designer: Dan Moses Schreier.