Kicking a Dead Horse
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
July 13, 2008
As theatre or as a critique of the current state of the American psyche, Sam Shepard's new play Kicking a Dead Horse proves as effective as its title prophesies. How discouraging that one of our premier playwrights comes up so short in mounting an attack on our collective anomie!
The setting of Kicking is a remote and desolate spot in the Badlands, where Hobart Struther has come out to soak up something authentic but winds up simply stuck, with only his just-deceased horse for company. Hobart is an '80s-style exec who's finally understood that his shallow values and his decaying marriage have started to eat him alive. He's looking for major self-actualization on this journey to find himself and America.
The horse dominates Brien Vahey's stark set, inert but oddly powerful as it lies on its side near the grave that Hobart has just finished digging for it. But—at least from where I sat, near the front of the audience area—the horse plainly looks inauthentic (i.e., like a big papier-mache horse rather a big real horse), which is a significant problem in a play that constantly approaches allegory without ever quite mastering any important big ideas.
The horse, you see, is a symbol of the Real America. You know, cowboys, manifest destiny, wide open spaces...that sort of stuff. The America where men were men and were masters of what they surveyed.
Trouble is, the Real America, Hobart realizes, is a sham. Not just an Arthur Miller sham that we can recover from our greedy fathers, but a total washout, a lost cause. Cowboys brutally murdered Indians, manifest destiny turned us into imperialist pigs, and wide open spaces proved to be a temptation to squander precious resources.
So the dead horse, while in some respects a noble dream that we (or at least Hobart) does well to aspire to, is actually as rotten to the core as Hobart himself.
Shepard communicates all of this to us through Hobart's long, rambling monologue, which is repetitive and lacking in subtlety or, sadly, theatre poetry. I think that Hobart could be a true, sad clown—like Beckett's protagonists in Godot, for example—but Shepard, staging his own play, doesn't push Stephen Rea in that direction. Instead, the piece amounts to a long, pathetic wail, even though Rea tries to punch it up in places by using different voices and lots of gesticulation (he's disguised his Irish accent so well that he's almost unrecognizable).
How this all ends is evident about half-an-hour into the play. I guess it's meant to be a cosmic joke and a tragedy simultaneously, but the lack of anything interesting preceding it dulls the impact.