Sam Shepard’s first new play since 2004, “Kicking a Dead Horse,” is altogether a strange beast. And that’s not just the dead horse onstage. Some excellent deadpan humor, delivered brilliantly by a refreshingly antic Stephen Rea; autobiographical material that seems a halfhearted attempt on Shepard’s part to unload old creative baggage; and the incongruous setting of Ireland’s National Theater all add up to an evening that feels like a somewhat misfired in-joke.
The lights come up on a circular stage with two mounds of dirt, a rectangular hole, a pile of riding tackle, and — yup — a very real-looking life-size dead horse. A man emerges out of the hole, carrying a shovel. “Fucking horse. Goddamn,” he says to the audience, and then kicks the dead horse. Literally.
We are in broad parodic territory here; and initially Rea gets the tone just right. He is Hobart Struther, a New York art dealer who headed out on a desert walkabout to rediscover his “authenticity,” only to have his horse keel over. Homage is clearly being paid to Samuel Beckett at his most absurdly comic, as Hobart tries and fails repeatedly to tip the horse into the too-small grave.
The key artist Shepard is glossing here, however, is himself. Hobart made his fortune reselling paintings of the American West at a massive markup. “What I couldn’t see was how those old masterpieces would become like demons, trapping me in a life I wasn’t meant for,” he says self-pityingly.
This and other references (to New York, where Shepard now sometimes lives, and his wife’s “golden hair”) make clear that Shepard is reflecting on his own career and life, seeming to renounce his past creative patterns by sending them up. But by invoking all his familiar themes — the American West, dreams of escape, tourism, violence — Shepard re-inscribes them in his work even as he claims to disavow them.
On one level, he knowingly nods to what he’s doing by making the classic Shepardian battle between self and other an internal one: Hobart bickers constantly with himself, another challenge Rea carries off with great skill (if with an overly mobile pan-American accent).
But the legend simply protests too much: if Shepard really wanted to “make a clean break” from the dead-horse weight that is his cowboy-playwright image, then why write another cowboy play? The entire effort is steeped in solipsism, into which it starts to disappear.
The first sign that things are going wrong is the brief appearance of a pretty young woman in a short slip who gives Hobart back his discarded Stetson — a possible nod to feminist critiques of the treatment of women characters in his plays. But this is a self-reflexive gag too far — you can’t objectify women and pretend not to at the same time (something the creative team may have begun to realize in the run up to production, given that the printed playscript says the woman is meant to be naked.) And when Hobart collapses on the horse’s body, sobbing, his crisis now seems to be intended seriously, a tonal about-face that prompts the only bum note of Rea’s performance.
This play is part of an ongoing engagement with Shepard’s work that saw a fine revival of “True West” last year. But Ireland is an odd context for such a self-referential work; it’s unlikely that audiences will have the knowledge required to fully grasp its apparently intended ironies.