Playbill/Posters
 

 
Synopsis:

The play begins with a man alone in a desert landscape digging a grave. Hobart Struther's horse has just dropped dead. He stands there in the vast open desert trying to figure out what to do about his predicament. Every once in a while, he gives the corpse an audible kick for having let him down. Struther made his fortune buying paintings for $20 from Wyoming saloons and reselling them for millions. In the throes of some midlife crisis, he has abandoned his wife and his posh life for a "grand sojourn" - what will turn out to be a doomed "quest for authenticity". In a 80-minute monologue, the former art dealer laments his situation. He engages in a debate between his cynical side and the ingenuous one. He discusses what path brought him here in the first place, the fate of his marriage, his career, politics and eventually the nature of the universe.

"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

 

Sam Shepard:
“On a very coarse level, it’s a clown show."

"When I begin to explain it, it just takes all the life out of it."

"It's not meant to be a representation, just an expression."

 
Stephen Rea:

"As Sam has said, the Irish were the first people through the Cumberland Gap [the main route west through the Appalachians]. The language Sam uses relates very much to a North of Ireland mode of speech. I think any of us can understand the sense of a loss of history, a loss of a sense of certainty about the mythology that sustains a society. That’s the kind of crisis that Hobart is embodying... It’s about advanced capitalism, about using up resources as fast as you can. And to sustain the lifestyle, you’re then moving on to invade sovereign nations. It’s also personal to Sam because he’s explored his own identity through the West before. He’s asking – what is this authenticity? And we all have those things, those mythological supports. We’ve got to reinvestigate them – certainly in Ireland we have to. I find that it’s an enormously brave play for that reason.”

 
Performance History
Stephen Rea starred in the solo performance with Sam Shepard directing.

March 12 - April 14, 2007 - Peacock Theatre (at the Abbey Theatre), Dublin, Ireland

September 12-22, 2007 - Peacock Theatre (at the Abbey Theatre), Dublin, Ireland

June 24 - August 10, 2008 -  Public Theater, NYC

September 5-20, 2008 - Almeida Theatre, London, England

 
Published:
 

 
Publicity Photos:
 
 
Read reviews here for the Dublin and London performances.

Reviews for the Public Theater production:

 

Jason Clark, Entertainment Weekly:
You'd never imagine that a Sam Shepard play would have such a literal title, but indeed, Stephen Rea spends a good deal of the show's 75-minute running time kicking a dead horse. (''F---ing horse!'' is his favorite refrain.) As Hobart Struther, a former art dealer having a Beckett-like war with himself while trapped in the desert with his expired equine guide (recreated with startling accuracy by scenic designer Brien Vahey), the lilting Irish actor gives an earthy, full-throttle performance. Rea is filled with bristle and nuance, yet despite the perspiration his largely physical portrayal yields, he never quite seems to fit the Shepard aesthetic. Sure, his hangdog face suggests a man who has endured some wear and tear, but a sense of true grit is lacking. (And his Irish cadences inevitably invade his speeches.)

To be fair, this is one of Shepard's stranger, more indulgent plays, and he exhibits more confidence as the director (the simple yet atmospheric stagecraft is often striking). The author's autobiographical nature actually hampers his dialogue. For every succinct, poetic Shepardism — especially in Rea's more reflective monologues, such as an ode to a woman of his past — there is another that reeks of Western cowboy baggage (and not the boots-and-saddles kind) that should have been put out to pasture long ago.

Martin Denton, NY Theater:
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.

Alexis Green, The Hollywood Reporter:
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...

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.

Peter Santilli, Boston Globe - Sam Shepard treads familiar ground in 'Dead Horse':
In Sam Shepard's latest play, "Kicking a Dead Horse," which opened Monday at off-Broadway's Public Theater, the iconic writer treads on familiar ground — the wide-open frontiers of the American West.

And while admirers of Shepard's work should find something to enjoy in this well-acted, cerebral little drama, the production will leave most feeling unfulfilled, thanks to its uneven stage direction and a script that is unremarkable by Shepard's standards...

Shepard's ornery, grave-digging loner is played with forceful originality by Stephen Rea... The actor is as engaging as ever, as he preaches, shouts, sings, contorts and frowns, with traces of his recognizable Irish accent all but impossible to detect.

The play is Shepard's fifth to have its New York premiere at the Public. It is co-produced by Ireland's Abbey Theatre, Rea's old stomping ground, where it enjoyed a sold-out run before its current engagement.

Shepard, who won the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for drama for his play "Buried Child," also directs this production, which is uniquely staged with its simple but lovely panoramic backdrop, the ever-present dead horse, the hole in the ground and pleasingly subtle drum fills that occasionally accompany Struther's actions.

As the play marches grimly toward its climax, it acquires an increasingly dreamlike quality. This gradual transference from reality to fantasy is mostly engrossing with the unfortunate exception of heavy-handed lighting used to simulate an electrical storm and, in another scene, to signal a sudden epiphany.

In another curiously awkward dream sequence, we're introduced to a second cast member (Elissa Piszel) who makes only a brief, unspoken appearance and disappears inexplicably.

What is most notably absent from this "Kicking a Dead Horse" is Shepard's sense of humor. Struther's predicament and Rea's portrayal are generally funny, but the script itself offers very little for the audience to laugh at.

Toby Zinman, Philadelphia Inquirer - Shepard's 'Horse" has a certain sameness:
Sam Shepard's new lament for America, "Kicking a Dead Horse", is far more despairing and far less funny but just as autobiographical as his great play, "True West", written 28 years ago.

This U.S. premiere at New York's Public Theater takes up the old Shepard themes: the wild West, manhood, existential angst about art vs. commerce, the allure of religion, betrayal by time, and the always shaky assumption that things used to be realer, truer, better, more authentic than they are now.

Stephen Rea, the Irish film star, carries the 75-minute monologue. He plays a cowboy-turned-art dealer-turned-cowboy with the unlikely name of Hobart Struther. Struther made his fortune buying paintings for $20 from Wyoming saloons and reselling them for millions. In the throes of some midlife crisis, he has abandoned his wife and his posh life for a "grand sojourn" - what will turn out to be a doomed "quest for authenticity..."

Despite being craggy and lean, Rea does not look or sound much like an American cowboy, although he handsomely finesses the fine line between humor and pathos (comedy and tragedy just will not do here). It's an impressive performance, but not a moving one...

All the Shepard signature techniques are at work: the use of folkloric music and bizarre offstage sound effects, as well as fancy, parodic lighting (lights bang up and lights slam down, reminding us that this is theater, not nightfall). The most recognizable device is the character's externalized debate with himself: Yeats' "Dialogue of Self and Soul" seems more than just alluded to, this play being a coproduction with Dublin's Abbey Theatre.

"Kicking a Dead Horse", while watchable, entertaining theater, seems like recycled Shepard, the cowboy-turned-playwright-turned-movie star-turned-playwright-turned-cowboy kicking that now-dead horse. There's nothing like literalizing a metaphor.

Michael Sommers, Newark Star-Ledger - 'Dead Horse' takes a beaten path:
A sad, unsatisfying new play by Sam Shepard, "Kicking a Dead Horse" reflects the futility of its title all too well...

Shepard's works are ever meaningful, so this essentially one-man text could be construed as the playwright's lament for his own fading ability to explore Western mythology significantly. Or perhaps it speaks to the stinking end of American civilization as Baby Boomers and their elders knew it. Possibly both.

The situation is striking. Brian Vahey's elegantly minimal design reveals a painterly vista of distant ranges set beyond a mound of dirt and an open grave in the foreground. The realistic representation of a dead horse, legs rigid with rigor mortis, lies on the far side of the deep hole from which Rea pain fully emerges, exhausted and grimy with digging.

Samuel Beckett's apocalyptic world is evoked by such an image. As Hobart whines away, both to himself and the audience, it becomes clear how this troubled soul is freighted down by inner doubts and the dubious way he perceives how his life has evolved...

Staged by the author complete with rumbles of thunder and overt lighting shifts, the drama requires viewers to hunt hard for nuggets of significance amid the surprisingly dry dust of Shepard's writing. Despite Rea's capable presence as an actor, there's really not much gold in them thar hills.

Malcolm Johnson, Hartford Courant - Good Ride, But a Bit Repetitious:
The blue tarp slips back to reveal a trench, two mounds of earth, a saddle and gear and the carcass of a brown mount. Bits of dirt fly out of the hole, followed by a shovel and a canteen. At last a man hauls himself up, and "Kicking a Dead Horse" begins.

Originally produced by Ireland's Abbey Theatre, the new play written and directed by Sam Shepard brings Stephen Rea to The Public Theater for a tragicomic tour de force. "Kicking" is a thoroughly American play that reworks the themes of the playwright-director. Again, his mouthpiece voices deep regret for the decline of the American West...

This is as political as Shepard gets. And, in Rea, he has an actor who can deliver a punch, even as Hobart flies into a rage. "Kicking a Dead Horse" can be repetitive at times, but Rea, with his shifting voices and sense of absurdist comedy, creates an always-fascinating spell in painting his picture of a doomed rich man cut off from everything in the middle of nowhere.

Les Gutman, CurtainUp:
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...

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...

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.

Matthew Murray, Talkin' Broadway:
Before you ask, the title of Sam Shepard's new play, "Kicking a Dead Horse", is both literal and metaphorical. Hobart Struther, "dealer in American Fine Art," spends no shortage of time assailing his equine mount after it dies shortly after beginning what for him was a vital emotional pilgrimage. While watching the American premiere at The Public Theater, in a coproduction with Ireland's Abbey Theatre, I counted 21 times that foot and horse connected. And each blow was accompanied by the offstage pounding of a tympani that signaled that Something Bigger was going on.

As if we needed the reassurance. Whenever Shepard returns to the West, preconceptions and skies shatter, to be replaced with a clearer-eyed view of the last great American dreamland. He has explored, with great success, the land's impact on individuals ("True West", "Fool for Love"). But with "Kicking a Dead Horse", which he also directed, he reminds you he's every bit as good at taking the larger view. He has vividly expanded his field of vision here to be as endless as the great American prairie, to search its expanse for a viable way to explain who we are and what our country is.

Heartfelt though the play frequently is, the title rightly suggests Shepard intends more than merely a myopic valentine. He's also sharply critical of how the West was won and what's been done with it since that winning. Hobart unleashes a lengthy rant near the end about the crimes against humanity that led to its settlement, all but implicating not just the era's bureaucrats but the entire Western world, then and now, as embarking on a campaign of destruction. He also muses that Meriwether Lewis committed suicide because he foresaw what would become of the country he charted.

At times like these, Shepard is not at his best, and he strains when he tries to have Hobart equate the more shadowy side of Manifest Destiny with more modern geopolitical aims. (The invasion of Iraq, while not stated directly, is strongly implicit.) But when he sheathes his soapboxing in favor of viewing those same issues through Hobart's tired eyes, it feels as though you're hearing most of these complaints for the first time. This is in no small part because Hobart seems to be newly discovering them himself...

Rea makes Hobart's one-man conversations into nail-biting battles of will, and his solo reminiscences into moving elegies for the frontier that's faded more than most of the paintings he's seen depict it. (Brien Vahey's horizon-rich, makeshift graveyard set and John Comiskey's sky-friendly lighting help complete the picture.) That the world's colors seldom appear as bright when seen close up is Shepard's point - to think otherwise, to attempt to change that natural order is futile.

Not that that's ever stopped anyone. "I do not understand why I'm having so much trouble taming the Wild," Hobart says when struggling with one of history's most uncooperative tents. What he doesn't understand is that the Wild can't be tamed - it's as determined to reclaim what belongs to it as humans have been to steal it in the first place. At least Shepard has not faced the same problem in taming his own personal West, a place that, like "Kicking a Dead Horse", remains dangerous and exciting in equal measure.

David Finkle, Theater Mania:
Sam Shepard's newest play Kicking a Dead Horse, now getting its American premiere at the Public Theater, springs directly out of his top drawer, but that vaunted status may not be apparent from the current production, starring the Irish actor Stephen Rea as an East Coast art dealer named Hobart Struther.

The 80-minute virtual solo slow - which debuted to great acclaim at Dublin's Abbey Theatre last year with Rea in the lead -- is about death and, more than that, about the death of the American Wild West myth. It's a macabre piece, to be sure, but it's indisputably intended as black comedy and should come off as hilarious. Ultimately, Shepard, who has directed the work, simply may not have found ways in which to get the grizzled and world-weary Rea to tickle ribs enough for American tastes...

Still, the brilliance of "Kicking A Dead Horse" is in the infinite reverberations Shepard extracts from his simple metaphor. But maybe successfully bringing such a simple metaphor to the stage is more complicated than he has yet figured out.

Adam R. Perlman, Back Stage:
Yesterday David Mamet's most recent play closed, and tonight Sam Shepard's opens. Both works, penned by arguably America's greatest living playwrights, bear the marks of the Bush presidency. Ever the confident satirist, Mamet took to outright absurdism with November, a broad farce set in the oval office. (An even broader and better one, Romance (2005), took place in a courtroom.) Shepard has gone in the opposite direction. Following God of Hell (2004), a political polemic, he has now written a play of runaway anger. Kicking a Dead Horse may start with a comic premise and tour through Shepard's oeuvre, but it settles in unfamiliar territory — it's the first time I can recall Shepard sounding shrill.

Despite being commissioned by the Abbey Theatre and first playing at the company's Dublin home, Kicking is a deeply American play. Political and personal, it finds Hobart Struther, a man of the West turned New York sophisticate, returning to the frontier only to find it fall out from under him — and then crush him to death. On stage, this means Hobart (Stephen Rea, struggling with accent and modulation) is alone with a corpse that he feels duty bound to bury — though his sense of honor apparently doesn't require him to refrain from hauling off and kicking the carcass anytime he gets sufficiently frustrated.

It's hard not to notice how much Hobart resembles Shepard, the Californian who escaped to the East Village in the 1960s and refracted the Wild West through a prism jagged with the influence of Samuel Beckett. Throughout the play, we watch Shepard (who also directed) grapple with his baggage as both chronicler and plunderer of the West. So long as the tone stays broad, it is bearable, even occasionally amusing. But matters grow uncomfortable when the playwright attempts to place his and Hobart's story into a greater context of an American culture that rewards rapists and ransackers. And unfortunately, it's not Shepard's usual brand of uncomfortable, trading in explosive violence or unabashed symbolism, though there's a lovely moment of the latter when a woman (Elissa Piszel), an angel or a sexualized fantasy object (and, of course, she can be both), emerges from the ground to return Struther his cowboy hat.

The sort of uncomfortable I'm talking about, though, is that which occurs when Hobart's speech about "taming the wild" spirals out of control until it encompasses the Trail of Tears and the invading of sovereign nations. It's soapbox speechifying from a man whose dramatic genius lays in situations far more layered if not necessarily more subtle.

Hobart never finds the authenticity he's come home to seek. Neither does Shepard, as the play — much like Hobart's horse — betrays and bludgeons him.

Marilyn Stasio, Variety:
Sam Shepard takes an extremely literal position on that folksy adage about the futility of persisting in a lost cause. Director-scribe illustrates the obvious, in "Kicking a Dead Horse," via the seriocomic dilemma of a city slicker whose horse ups and dies when he rides into the desert on a mission to recover the truth and inspiration he once found in the American West. Even with Stephen Rea re-creating his starring role in the original Abbey Theater production - not to mention the huge horse carcass taking up much of the stage - the piece is all metaphor and no drama.

Here's what isn't on the stage: an angry young man, his character forged by the values of the American West that both nurture and confine him, locked in battle with the corrupt father figure who first built and then poisoned the golden land. That's the kind of play Shepard ("Buried Child," "Fool for Love," et al.) might have written in his salad days, when an artist could still believe in the transformative powers of art to heal a nation and redeem its lost sons.

The cranky play that the mature Shepard has actually written (his first since 2004) holds out no hope for redemption, through art or anything else. Not for a man who has sold out his youthful ideals and grown too old and rich and rigid to mend his ways. Which is the self-flagellating point of the parody that the scribe has made of his life's work, reducing it to the "sentimental claptrap" of the Old West that Hobart Struther (Rea) peddles as a Manhattan art dealer.

In this autobiographical context, those invigorating old Shepardian debates between father and son, hostile siblings and feuding lovers are just not worth arguing anymore. So not worth arguing, in fact, that this existential tall tale is no debate at all, but an extended interior monologue. The only visual jolt is the fleeting appearance of a spacey girl (Elissa Piszel) -- and the larger metaphorical presence of that danged horse, of course...

Not that there isn't plenty of anger in this piece, but not much of the lethal variety that transcends its immediate subject and pulls down the whole temple. Shepard finally gives that to us in a furious speech at the end of the play, a stunning litany of barbaric highlights in America's long criminal history of "taming" the West. But outside that electrifying moment, there's little heat - or threat - in Rea's bleeding-heart perf and Shepard's own soft-pedal direction.

Yet Shepard is still Shepard, and it would be worth seeing what a vigorous American company might do with this material. Play it angrier, rip out its heart, kick it harder.

John Simon, Bloomberg News - Stephen Rea Seeks `True' West in Sam Shepard Fable:
With ``Kicking a Dead Horse,'' Sam Shepard returns as playwright and director in a co-production of Dublin's Abbey Theatre and New York's Public Theater, where it is now having its U.S. debut. Its one act is overlong (80 minutes), even if its one speaking character is played by the fine Irish actor Stephen Rea, who does everything performance can do for a play.

Though the Irish designer Brien Vahey has created a terrific equine carcass - Shepard would have preferred a real horse - the author is kicking a dead horse in more ways than one...

"Kicking a Dead Horse" is written in Shepard's symbolic- allegorical manner; I much prefer his straightforward mode, as in, say, ``Fool for Love.'' It also contains some fantasy, which worked for Shepard in his best play, ``Buried Child,'' but doesn't come off here. I say this regretfully, because, at his best, he is very good indeed...

The work can also be read as a fable of dispossession, of ridding oneself of ill-gotten gains - the expensive saddle, rare high-quality spurs, brand new Stetson - all of which and more he reluctantly tosses into the horse's putative grave. But the animal itself will only budge halfway, with head and stiff legs accusatorily crying out to heaven. Here Shepard must also throw in a bit of surrealism: emerging from the hole, a scantily clad, barefoot, pretty young woman (Elissa Piszel), symbolizing ... what?

Neither Hobart nor his language was affecting enough to compel my attention. (I also wish Shepard wouldn't lapse into the current egregious error of ``lay'' for ``lie.'') Vahey's simple set and John Comiskey's elaborate lighting are neatly executed, as are Jackie Sanders's drumming and Dan Moses Schreier's sound.

But in the end I felt sorrier for that nice Stetson hat than for the man who twice tossed it. This overextended expatiation on a concise saying by Benjamin Franklin (actually replicating one by the poet George Herbert) about the want of a horse costing the loss of the rider left me cold. Well, at least Shepard spares us the loss of the nail and the shoe.

Jacques le Sourd, NY Journal-News - And the horse he rode in on:
Sam Shepard's "Kicking a Dead Horse," which opened last night at the Public Theatre, proves to be an all-too-literal reflection of its title.

We are on the lone prairie with actor Stephen Rea and his dead horse, which he kicks. He kicks his dead horse a lot.

The rather authentic-looking horse is equipped with weird, echoing sound effects provided by sound designer Dan Moses Schreier.

The short play, directed by Shepard himself, may immediately put you in mind of Samuel Beckett. Hobart Struther, the part Rea plays alone in a production that originated in Ireland's Abbey Theatre, is like one of those Beckett characters stranded in a sandy no-man's-land, pondering his hopeless fate...

The play is drowning in weighty metaphors. Or is it utter meaninglessness?

Like a Beckett piece, "Horse" flirts on occasion with humor. But the relationship never develops. What passes for a point seems to come very near the end, when Hobart lets loose with a tirade about the conquest of the Wild West...

But it's a long wait for one zinger of a speech. And Rea spends entirely too much time kicking that poor, dead horse.

Eric Grode, NY Sun - Sam Shepard's Horseplay:
Sam Shepard can generally be counted on to mosey around a point, letting his symbolism-drenched dollops of Western-flavored Southern Gothic fill in the gaps as he goes. But when Hobart Strother blurts out this description of "Kicking a Dead Horse," Mr. Shepard's inert and occasionally inept exercise in Beckettian absurdism, he gets right to the point. And those faceless souls being treated to the dumb show — which Mr. Shepard has also directed, with the resourceful Irish actor Stephen Rea — are the paying customers...

The middle-of-nowhere banter is clearly meant to evoke Samuel Beckett, a parallel that is made explicit during a late — and, as staged by Mr. Shepard, rather inelegant — series of surreal run-ins with a length of rope, a tent, and other inanimate objects. (Hobart's periodic and fruitless use of binoculars also evokes Clov in "Endgame," a role that Mr. Rea played in 1976 under Beckett's direction.) But the closer antecedent can be found much nearer to home: Hobart and his contemptuous doppelganger are dead ringers for Austin and Lee, the combative brothers at the center of Mr. Shepard's "True West." Once again we have the big-city culture maven, all too willing to make a buck by strip-mining the archetypal West, and the malevolent naysayer who goads the other into unwise decisions. The two plays' finales even have a quirky sort of symmetry, though the final image in "Kicking" is far odder (and, to be fair, awfully amusing)...

Very little of this can be blamed on Mr. Rea. His logy eyes and creaky gait effectively convey a city slicker who has grown nostalgic for his long-past days of roughing it, and while his vaguely inflected American accent has an undernourished quality to it, that might be intentional. (The occasional slip into Irish brogue is harder to explain away.) He labors to give Hobart's he-said-he-said arguments a spark of irony or meaning or something, but this forthright approach remains at cross-purposes with Mr. Shepard's meandering style.

Well into this slack and silly endeavor, Hobart receives brief and mysterious solace from — I wish I were kidding — a nameless statuesque brunette (Elissa Piszel), who emerges from the grave wearing nothing but a slip and Hobart's cowboy hat. Up until this point, "Kicking a Dead Horse" feels like the preoccupations of a middle-aged writer approached with the awkwardness of a young writer. The appearance of Our Lady of the Stetson and the Slip, though, is beneath even the greenest tenderhorn with a typewriter. It is the soggy contrivance of an irredeemably False West.

Chris Jasurek, The Epoch Times:
Dripping in symbolism (with more than a bit of mysticism thrown in) and a title both figurative and literal, playwright Sam Shepard (who does double duty as director) debunks the myths of the American west as seen through the eyes of disillusioned dreamer in the very interesting and involving Kicking A Dead Horse. A co-production with the Abbey Theatre of Ireland, the show is now playing at the Public Theater off Broadway.

In the lonely emptiness of the western plains, Hobart Struther (an excellent Stephen Rea), a middle-aged once upon a time cowboy is alone and in trouble. Barely a day after he set off on a quest into the wilderness, his horse suddenly died. Now he finds himself alone, with no way to get back to civilization. He isn't even sure where he parked his car and trailer. (Ambiguous at first, it quickly becomes apparent the story is set in the present day.)

Hobart has long dreamed of the mythic west but never really found it. As a young man, he worked on one of the big cattle ranches, and during his time off, started buying up paintings of the old west by such American masters such as Frederic Remington and Charlie Russell from people who had no idea of their true value. He then turned around and sold them for hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece, becoming a wealthy art dealer in the process. However Hobart always felt guilty for getting rich off his dreams, to the point he finally had enough, closing his business and coming back to the country he's always loved, and where he may now soon die.

As he takes stock of his situation (in between attempting to bury his horse), Hobart begins to have conversations with himself, his inner voice mocking him for trying to believe in a dream which never really existed. After all, the text points out, the west was built on the backs and murdered bodies of Indians, Blacks, Chinese and Mexicans; not to mention how we raped the land in search of gold and often invaded sovereign territory (Indian nations) in the name of progress and expansion.

If things can seem rather preachy at times (as Sheppard is wont to be), the relatively short running time and Rea's wonderful performance more than make up for it. Watching Hobart's psyche at war with himself is quite fascinating, no more so than when he is forced to leave behind anything not necessary to his survival, including his saddle, bridle, spurs and hat. As he tosses these items into the horse's grave, the playwright is literally burying the symbols of the West. But the deeper irony Shepard seems to be pointing out is not the lack of authenticity of Hobart's dreams ("authenticity" being a catchword in the play), but rather that they do exist, but often one is too cynical to recognize them. A point brought home when Hobart is unexpectedly visited by a spirit (Elissa Piszel) of this perhaps not-so-make-believe era.

Rea is perfect in the role of the aging and emotionally broken dreamer, yearning to live the life he always fantasized about, only to have nature and the elements conspire against him. One can feel the pain in his body, the ache in his voice and the sheer tiredness of a man who has been beaten down by unrealistic expectations and a failure to see life for what it is and what it could be, instead of what he wants it to be. This is a man with passions all too familiar to audiences, (albeit perhaps not the exact circumstances), and thus ones easy to understand.

In addition to the richness of the text, Shepard does a wonderful job directing his own work, deftly creating an atmosphere of both beauty and solitude, and nicely leavening the immenseness of his message with generous amounts of black humor—all of which combine to show that things are never simply what they seem, or what we might wish them to be.

The scenic design by Brien Vahey is quite good, not only adding a feeling of authenticity but also providing one of the more unusual opening moments of a play in recent memory. Consumes by Joan Bergin are fine, as is the lighting by John Comiskey, and sound design by Dan Moses Schreier.

Frank Scheck, NY Post - Not Just Horseplay:
There are moments during Sam Shepard's new play when the title feels all too apt. A slight one-act, virtually a monologue, about a New York art dealer stuck in the middle of the desert when his ride keels over, "Kicking a Dead Horse" feels like a reiteration of themes Shepard has explored before, in better plays.

And yet, thanks to its elemental simplicity and a terrific performance by Stephen Rea ("The Crying Game," "Breakfast on Pluto"), the play, which opened last night at the Public, nonetheless has a lingering haunting quality. Clearly reminiscent of Samuel Beckett in its darkly comic absurdist tone, this "Horse," however slight, can't be dismissed...

That Shepard, who also directed, has political as well as personal issues on his mind is clear toward the end, when Hobart delivers a lengthy speech detailing American abuses: "Destroyed education. Turned our children into criminals. Demolished art! Invaded sovereign nations! What more can we possibly do?"

Although the brief appearance of a scantily clad woman (Elissa Piszel) adds little to the play's impact, the final moments deliver a deliciously amusing cosmic joke.

Charles Isherwood, NY Times - Horse Can’t Head Into the Sunset in Sam Shepard’s New West:
A sick-souled Manhattan art dealer tries to resurrect his inner cowboy in “Kicking a Dead Horse,” the new play written and directed by Sam Shepard that opened on Monday night at the Public Theater. The first image we see makes it blue-sky clear that the quest has not been a roaring success...

That opening tableau — dead horse, yawning grave, merciless sky, peevish shovelfuls of dirt arcing across the stage — is funny, macabre and somehow crushingly sad. Mr. Shepard’s writing strikes all those chords too, as Mr. Rea’s character, Hobart Struther, recounts the events that have led him to this sorry pass.

But nothing in the play really improves upon that starkly eloquent initial image, which seems to announce with nary a word that Mr. Shepard, who has drawn on visions of the West, mythic and real, for decades now, is about ready to give up the game, to intone the last rites over a galloping symbol of freedom, possibility, redemption. Although it provides a fine showcase for the craggily compelling Mr. Rea, “Kicking a Dead Horse” is a disappointingly arid lament for America’s lost ideals and despoiled frontiers, a blunt position paper from a playwright whose best writing is rich in mystery and oblique but potent imagery...

Mr. Shepard, like most playwrights of the latter half of the 20th century, is an admirer of another playwriting Sam, the great Beckett. In its barren but suggestive landscape, its gallows humor and the defeating near-futility of Hobart’s quest, “Horse” feels like a conscious homage to Beckett. The setting recalls the wastelands of “Waiting for Godot” and “Happy Days,” those masterly portraits of end-of-days despair laced with mordant comedy. As in those plays, the passage of time lurches and stalls erratically in “Horse,” as dusk falls with a flick of a light switch. (Perhaps it is significant, too, that Mr. Shepard chose an Irish actor to create the role of Hobart, and the Abbey Theater of Dublin, co-presenter of the play here, to stage the world premiere.)

Although he is known for the long arias that pepper his works, Mr. Shepard’s best plays explode with primal conflict between brothers or lovers, fathers and mothers, fathers and sons. With but a single character onstage (save for a mysterious female apparition), Mr. Shepard is forced to employ an unconvincing dramatic device to generate theatrical heat and expose the fissures in Hobart’s soul...

Many of Mr. Shepard’s greatest characters are hollowed-out men with strangely fluid identities, torn up by confusion or engaged in a search for a fixed self. But in spite of this forthright airing of his riven psyche, Hobart never really acquires the kind of psychological substance or emotional specificity that would engage our interest in his spiritual crisis. The few details of his history that we learn have a generic quality, as when he discusses his cooling relations with his wife, as he came to realize “how much she deeply resented me.”

After a while, when Hobart begins recalling doomed historical figures from the Western days of yore, like Meriwether Lewis and Crazy Horse, he begins to seem less like a fully imagined character with his own obsessions and demons than like a convenient mouthpiece for the playwright’s anguished disappointment over the state of American art and society in the bleak, dawning days of the 21st century...

Mr. Rea rises to a fine pitch of fury in this foaming climax, and he makes wonderful pantomime of Hobart’s comic tussles with the recalcitrant horse and an equally testy tent. The whole performance is infused with a jittery restlessness that speaks affectingly of Hobart’s itchy discomfort in his own skin.

But, questions of education and nation-invading aside, Mr. Shepard has covered much of this territory before, far more subtly. This deeply instinctual and intuitive artist here seems to be giving fullest rein to his intellect, resulting in a play that lacks the molten core of feeling that energizes his better work. In wrestling head-on with themes he’s covered more elusively before, he comes close to joining his protagonist in the fruitless activity that gives the play its title.

And yet “Horse” concludes with a grim but brilliant gag hinting that Mr. Shepard may not have given up entirely on the theatrical lexicon that has proved so inspiring to him over the years. Yes, the Western landscape may be vanquished by shopping malls and freeways. The American ideals that fed men’s souls may be tarnished and corrupted. The horse is dead, true, but maybe, just maybe, there’s some life left in him yet.

 
Previous Production:
March 12 to April 14, 2007 at the Abbey - Peacock Theatre, Dublin, Ireland
 

 

Edel Coffey, Sunday Tribune - How Shepard and Rea tamed the wild west
Sam Shepard's new play "Kicking A Dead Horse" was written especially for Stephen Rea, which must be one of the highest compliments an actor can be paid, especially by a playwright who is considered one of the best of his generation. The world premiere took place on Thursday night in the Peacock theatre and seemed a strangely muted affair, despite the momentousness of the event.

The play tells the story of Hobart Struther, a wealthy New York art dealer, who has ditched his shiny city life in search of authenticity in the modern-day wild west. It begins with the absurdist sense of comedy that Shepard has become known for.

The set is covered with a sky-blue silk sheet, obscuring oddlyshaped mounds. As the music rises, the sheet is pulled slowly from the side of the stage to reveal mounds of earth, a deep pit and a dead horse (which looks very real). The audience titters.

From the pit in the centre of the stage, a spadeful of dusty muck gets thrown out, followed by a subterranean grunt, then another spadeful, another grunt, another spadeful, until the spade gets thrown up and a dusty Rea slowly emerges.

The first few minutes of the play are all physical comedy; he gives the horse a good kick (he does this several times throughout the play) before starting into his monologue, which is so well-performed and well-written it keeps the audience riveted right through to the end.

Shepard is de-romanticising the mythology of the American cowboy. As night falls and Struther is stranded in the desert with his bags, a faulty tent and the rain and lightning flashing about him, it becomes apparent that finding authenticity through some quixotic ideal is not as easy as it might look. Struther tells himself, "So this is the way you wind up - not like some gallant bushwacker but flattened out babbling in the open plains."

Shepard mocks him even further by reminding him of the wife or partner that Struther has clearly left behind to go on his one-man mission to find himself.

"She'd be fixing supper for you about now, wouldn't she?" It all starts to sound very appealing and it perfectly lampoons the idea of city slickers trying to find authenticity in their lives through the cowboy dream.

There are political overtones and undertones to the play, although they are so subtle they might not exist at all. There are ambiguous lines that could refer to the current political situation in America. These lines resonate beyond the play itself, as when Struther berates himself - "What the hell did you expect?" or when he is finding his present predicament more difficult than he expected, he says, "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 this?"

Amidst all the clever humour, there is a lot being dealt with here- the search for some 'authenticity' in life, the loneliness and fearfulness of growing old, and the importance of companionship, "company, some warmth". It's hard not to look at it through an autobiographical filter, with the character Struther and Shepard being the same age.

Shepard has said about Rea that he is "so malleable, he can move in so many different directions" and it is true that Rea gives a wonderful and completely unexpected performance as Struther, from the surprise of the voice to the relish with which he carries out the physical comedy.

Paula Shields,The Observer - Remains of the neigh:
Stephen Rea's Hobart Struther is talking to himself. Stranded in the middle of nowhere in Sam Shepard's mythic Midwest, with a dead horse for company, is an edgy proposition for an ageing New York art dealer of nervous disposition. Shepard's new play revisits familiar themes: the constructs of America and the self, the fictions we live by, individually and collectively. Struther has left his successful East Coast life behind in search of a more authentic experience on a trip out West, but the death of his horse throws an equally absurd light on this notion too.

Rea deftly inhabits the role of an older man driven to make meaning of his existence. With comic skills to match the mordant humour of his situation, he brings numerous characters to life, when he isn't grappling with a commendably realistic dead horse prop and deadpanning the author's in-jokes at the audience. Little wonder Shepard wrote this lyrical, mature play with Rea in mind.

The mood darkens as the focus moves from the personal to the political in an angry passage that sums up the US, from the pioneers to today, in a deconstruction of the American Dream: 'Destroyed education. Turned our children into criminals. Demolished art. Invaded sovereign nations. What else can we do?'

Emer O'Kelly, Sunday Independent:
Hobart Struther is a man in trouble. A successful New York art dealer in early American paintings, he feels himself out of touch with the reality in the art. So he has taken himself out of his Park Avenue apartment, out of New York, to trek as the pioneers did in the desert: on horseback. And the horse has upped and died on him miles from anywhere.

Sam Shepard's "Kicking a Dead Horse" opens with Hobart digging a grave for the horse. As he digs, he converses with himself about reality and authenticity and how its loss numbs the soul into a comfortable, deadly detachment.

But as the monologue continues, we realise that there is more: she is gone. Maybe his wife, maybe his mistress, maybe both. And maybe all of this is fantasy: Hobart may well be having the conversation from the comfort of his armchair, his disgust at the destruction of everything fine that he believes the United States stood for less a grand gesture than a snoozing reminiscence in front of the TV triggered by loneliness and fear of the passing of time. Maybe this is a journey through death. At least that seems to be the case when a young woman rises from the grave to return Hobart's hat which he has thrown into it.

The play is classic Shepard, rueful and paradoxic, and the ending offers the blackest of comedy. In all of that, it is highly entertaining. But clarity is missing, and this may be because the author directs from a position too close to his text. Are we dealing with an elegy for the American Way? Are we dealing with a denunciation of comfortable success? Or are we watching a piece of surreal snook-cocking?

Stephen Rea, a longtime collaborator of Shepard, gives a splendidly wry performance as Hobart, although he is rather younger than the stage directions for the character to be in his mid-60s. But the production (a world premiere at the Peacock) suffers badly from inadequate technical management: the dead horse is unconvincing, and extreme suspension of disbelief is required when it finally falls across its grave, failing dismally to achieve what the action has been leading up to.

Fergal O'Brien (Bloomberg.com) - Sam Shepard Does Beckett, U.S.-Style, and the Hero's a Cowboy:
Sam Shepard is premiering his new play, "Kicking a Dead Horse,'" in Dublin. It's an entirely suitable decision considering how much the work owes to Beckett.

From the solitary character in a desolate landscape to the sense of failure and the moments of absurdity, the spirit of Beckett hangs over the production. Given the emphasis on hopelessness, from the title to the closing moments, it's fitting.

Stephen Rea is Hobart Struther, a New York art dealer who pillaged the American West for paintings that he sold on at inflated prices. But "things come back to haunt you," he says, now stuck in that mythical West after his horse dies.

Hobart's story, told as he tries to bury the horse in a hole that's too small, is one of failure, loneliness and running out of time. Rea, moving from anger to despair, with some comical head turns and farcical attacks on the dead equine in between, gives a compelling performance.

The Northern Ireland-born actor, for whom Shepard wrote the role, has pushed the dour manner that normally dominates his film work to the background, bringing a subtle energy to his character, a man who wishes he was a cowboy. (He has the spurs and the hat.)

A storm and his failure to raise a tent prompt Struther to say: "I do not understand why I am having so much trouble taming the wild." It could just as easily be about Shepard, who has had the cowboy tag imposed on him since early in his career, and we may assume an element of autobiography in Struther's predicament.

The only other character, and the weakest element in the play, is a young woman (Joanne Crawford) who appears midway through the narrative, unseen by Struthers, and returns his hat to him from the grave. Her meaning is unclear, and it's a distracting and meaningless role. A pity, because almost everything else, from Shepard's direction to Brien Vahey's set, is hard to fault.

The play moves from the personal to the political in a potted and damning history of the U.S. by Struther. As with much I've read, listened to or watched this year, touching on politics seems always to lead to one issue, U.S. foreign policy and the Iraq war.

So, after Arcade Fire drew on images of holy wars in "Neon Bible," and Iain Banks used "The Steep Approach to Garbadale" to rant about the "great American people" for "electing idiots," we have Shepard describing a country that's gone from killing buffalo to destroying education and invading sovereign nations.

The interesting thing is that Shepard doesn't push the issue. It's just one element in a litany of the nation's failures.

What you're left with is the feeling that the bad guys are winning. Struther/Shepard is up against too many things. And that's depressing, isn't it? Nobody wants the cowboy to quit.

John Murray Brown, The Financial Times - American angst in a desert landscape:
As the curtain rises on Sam Shepard's new play, another gritty cowboy drama at first seems in prospect. Many of his best known works have been set in a neon-lit world of trailer-trash, dingy diners and strong men with strong emotions - characters and props deployed to explain what he sees as the sickness of modern America.

Shepard, who is also an accomplished stage and film actor, is a giant of modern American theatre. From the 1960s along with writers such as Edward Albee, he pioneered a new language, poetic yet rooted in the landscape of the West - the True West, as the ironic title of his best-known play describes it.

But "Kicking a Dead Horse", which was given its world premiere on Thursday at Dublin's Peacock Theatre, feels different. First the whimsical title. Non-American audiences might grasp the drift more easily if "kicking" were replaced by "flogging". Is this Shepard, in self referential mode, responding to criticism for "over-mining" his favourite settings of outback angst?

But the play's title is not just metaphorical, it is, as we quickly discover, literal and real. This latest Shepard work, which the writer directs himself, owes as much to Samuel Beckett - the Irish playwright who is one of his acknowledged influences - and to European expressionist theatre as to the American road movie.

The setting is a desert landscape somewhere in the American West. A dead horse takes up the centre of the stage. A man is heard digging in a large pit nearby. This looks and feels more like Godot than Hamlet.

Hobart Struther, played by Stephen Rea - for whom the play was written and to whom it is dedicated - is not a real cowboy as becomes apparent when rummaging through his saddle bag he comes across his dental floss and his can-opener.

Hobart is a businessman roughing it in the prairie for a few days, in search of what he self-consciously calls "authenticity". This is a key word in the play, repeated several times and is an expression of Shepard's own search for an authentic language and idiom to describe modern America.

Hobart, like Shepard, is a man in his 60s. Unlike the still boyish playwright, Hobart is starting to feel his age. He has been through some sort of mental breakdown. His marriage is under strain. He is someone once familiar with working horses, but now a celebrated art dealer in New York.

He collects what he calls "masterful western murals nobody could recognise any more through the piled-up years of grime, tobacco juice and bar-room brawl blood". But now those "masterpieces" have become his "demons trapping me in a life I wasn't meant for".

Hobart's commercial success mirrors the success of those early pioneers, who like him, got rich plundering the wilderness of the West. He has few illusions that this was a bloody conquest. But as he recalls their exploits, he also puzzles over the story of one pioneer who, not content with a single suicide bullet, shot himself with two pistols one to the head and one to the stomach. "What was he thinking? To wind up like that after the greatest expedition in the history of . . . Maybe he realised something."

Shepard's last play, "The God of Hell" in 2004, was poorly received by the critics, some dismissing it as little more than a vehicle for a blunt-edged attack on the Bush regime. It is tempting to see a political impulse in this latest work too - a plea that the US administration might reach some point of self knowledge and recognise it is "kicking a dead horse" in Iraq.

There are several references that seem to link the events in this remote desert badlands with another desert country across the Blue Atlantic where Americans are making a mess of things.

At one point Hobart talksof the early pioneers "invading sovereign nations" by which he means the Indian tribes, but Shepard may also be making an allusion to Iraq.

Yet just as the horse will not fit into the pit that Hobart has dug for it, Shepard may also be warning the audience against attempting to cast his message about America and its history and landscape directly in the context of the bloody events of Iraq.

Helen Boylan, Sunday Business Post:
The various complex cowboys that have peopled Sam Shepard’s plays have turned the abstract fantasy of the Wild West on its head, making a mockery of the idea that authenticity might be found beyond the desert’s horizon.

In his latest play Kicking a Dead Horse, a one-man show receiving its world premiere at the Abbey Theatre, Shepard attempts a similar process of demystification. However, Hobart Struther (played by Stephen Rea) is an ill-conceived cowboy character, and his doomed quest for authenticity fails to find the ring of truth.

Struther is a cowboy-turned-art dealer who has returned to the desert, ‘‘hankering after a sense of being in his own skin’’.

His horse has just died, and in the empty endless desert landscape Struther is forced to confront the harsh physical reality of cowboy life and the artificiality of his cowboy dreams.

Despite self-conscious lighting cues and theatrical jokes addressed directly to the audience, the monologue form of the play is distinctly untheatrical.

The dramaturgical device of an alter-ego interrogating the stranded Struther is clunky and unclear, while the spontaneous appearance of a scantily clad woman with a rescued cowboy hat is indulgent.

Meanwhile, the stunning visual aspect of Brien Vahey’s tilted set (complete with life-size dead horse sculpted by Padraig McGoran and John O’Connor) fails to compensate for a stage scenario entirely lacking in atmosphere.

Rea, returning to the Irish stage after ten years, still holds a commanding stage presence, his frozen hangdog expression and his fixed sad eyes battling against the agitated physicality of his lean body.

Yet while Rea, as Struther, sets out to save himself, Rea’s performance cannot save the play. As Struther striving to find his voice, Rea is utterly convincing, but Shepard’s play, unfortunately, gives him nothing to say.

While making some timely, if unoriginal, observations about America’s historical legacy (contained in a single short speech lamenting the American dream of manifest destiny), the 70-minute piece is so underwritten that it seems more like a fragment from Shepard’s famous Motel Chronicles than a play.

As the latest theatrical offering from one of America’s greatest living playwrights, Kicking a Dead Horse is a big disappointment.

Shepard is not so much kicking a dead horse as milking the illusion of America’s scared cultural cow for all its worth.

Despite the celebrity appearance in this play, the one star rating below goes to the horse.

Karen Fricker, Variety:
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.

Colin Murphy, Irish Independent - Shepard is certainly not flogging a dead horse:
THE US is kicking a dead horse in Iraq, the outcome of a misconceived adventure that was supposed to be about taming the wild.

This could be what the renowned American playwright, Sam Shepard, is talking about in his enigmatic new play, 'Kicking A Dead Horse', which was written for the Abbey.

Stephen Rea plays Hobart Struther, a beaten-down American who has fled his bourgeois Park Avenue art-dealing life for a long trek across the prairies, in search of his former self.

A day into his trek, his horse keels over, and this is how we encounter Hobart: stuck in the wilderness, kicking his dead horse. (The horse is pretty lifelike, and the desert setting is elegantly captured by Brien Vahey's set and John Comiskey's lighting.)

Stephen Rea plays Hobart as a weary refugee from American materialism, a man who, as he found his fortune, lost his sense of himself. He is more pathetic than tragic, and Rea ennobles him with a sense of yearning and a restless energy that is captivating.

Hobart's task is to bury his horse, but he is defeated by the size and awkwardness of the stiffened corpse, which he can't fit into the grave he has dug. The writing is razor sharp.

There are no polemics: these themes are treated elliptically, in Hobart's lonesome ruminations. A witty ending leaves an appreciative audience asking each other, 'what did it mean?'

Luke Clancy, theloy.com:
Cowboys have often been recruited to help American look at itself, its dreams, drives and desires. Even when cooked up by writers with no experience of the Wild West – such as Zane Grey, the New York orthodontist turned author of Western stories – the cowboys provide a powerful image of a restless, brave, manly nation, ready to make the wilderness safe for industrial meat production.

That little gap between the cowboy myth and those who foster it crops up again in Sam Shepard's latest, an uncanny, one-handed, modern-day Western, having its world premier here, in a production directed by the playwright-actor-director.

Hobart Struther (Stephen Rea) finds himself alone in the desert with no way out but to walk. His horse has up and died, and Hobart feels honour bound to bury it. As he digs the pit, he raves at his misfortune and describes – addressing the audience directly – how manifest destiny brought him here.

And while the short terms causes of his predicament relate to an accidentally-snorted muzzle-full of oats, that is really only part of a grander crisis of in American self-love, for which Struther is just a symbol.

But no matter how keenly Shepherd is feeling the decline and fall of the US of A (hints about Iraq and Bushism abound) it isn't easy to have much sympathy. Struther, who turns out to be a New York art dealer specialising in Western Art, has plundered everything he touched, until you can't help feeling that it is not the workings of existential absurdity that has left him lost, friendless and isolated; he's simply getting his just desserts.

More than usual here, Shepard seems to be writing in the shadow of Samuel Beckett, whose surreal stages the set here (designed by Brien Vahey and lit by John Comiskey) recall. Even the play's title, acted out with gusto by Rea repeatedly, has a Beckettian futility to it. Rea's performance – irascible, raggedy, with a fine dust of humour, but undeniably un-cowboyish – adds a final twist to this knotty exploration of inauthenticity, even if the actor's North of Ireland accent is expertly buried beneath a soft Western drone.