Thursday, July 17, 2008

Kicking a Dead Horse

When I saw Sam Shepard's newest play at the Public this weekend, it hit me that I'd never seen a professional production of one his plays. When I was in college, almost everyone in the theater department was working on a monologue or a scene from Buried Child, True West or Fool for Love. But I think I've only seen two of his plays fully-produced, both in student productions: Buried Child at North Texas State in 1983 and A Lie of the Mind at Columbia in 2005. Naturally, I was kinda excited to see Stephen Rea, an actor that I admire, in a new play by one of the great American playwrights. And, by and large, I wasn't disappointed... much...

The title of the play is literal: there is a dead horse onstage and the main character kicks it several times. I perused the script yesterday at St. Marks' Books and, according to the stage direction: "The dead horse should be as realistic as possible, with no attempt to stylize or cartoon it in any way. In fact, it should actually be a dead horse." Really? Is that why I go to the theatre? Fortunately, even though Shepard himself directed the production, they used a most impressive sculpture instead.

The play reminded me a lot of Shepard's early plays: the language has a natural poetry that seems to flow effortlessly from Rea's character. It's very Beckettian, and although I'm sure Shepard would dislike my saying that, it's meant as a compliment: it's a man alone in a barren world,  stripped to just the essentials of his humanness, struggling to keep going in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Even in the final moment of the play, when the title character finally exacts its revenge, we're left with the sound of humanity emanating from depths of despair. As in the best Beckett, the play is frequently bleak but with an odd and often humorous optimism throughout.

The set and lights are incredible: both phenomenally realistic and ridiculously absurd, depending on what a moment requires. Stephen Rea's performance is great to watch: a sad sack Easterner, completely out of his element, navigating a situation that would shake the confidence of the most experienced cowboy. Ultimately, my biggest complaint about the production is that I wish Shepard had let someone else direct the play: there were several moments where it really caught fire, but longer stretches where it lacked a rhythm or drive. That's not to say that it is badly directed: when it's good, it's very good; when it isn't, it's not horrid. The pace was often very regular and similar in the sections with less action, which had a kind of lulling effect on me: I had found myself nodding off a few times, even though I was interested in what was being said.

After seeing the play, it made me curious to go back and look at Geography of a Horse Dreamer, in which Stephen Rea played a cowboy hero, kidnapped by gangsters, who can no longer dream the results of horse races. I read it before an audition I had for an Off Off production when I first moved to New York and I remember really liking the script, though little about it beside the basic plot. I don't think the plays have anything in common—apart from being by the same playwright and featuring the same actor—but I'm interested to compare them anyway, while this production is fresh in my mind.

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