Like a lot of people, PURE Theatre has a tendency to act out a bit during the dog days of summer — their annual Summer Slam production features a play that they might not normally take a chance on. This year, they’re presenting Sam Shepard’s Kicking a Dead Horse, a one-man show that’s only been performed twice in the U.S. Why the hesitation? Director Sharon Graci thinks it might have something to do with the dead horse.
“It’s really prohibitive when it’s all said and done. It requires a dead horse, so most people don’t really want to tackle it,” Graci says. “The world of theater is a very small place, and we will more than likely pick up the horse that was used in Ohio. We’ll use someone else’s horse. Thank God it exists.”
Besides the carcass — which Graci describes as “realistic-looking” — the play stars local theater vet Randy Neale as Hobart Struther. The former art dealer has abandoned his wife and posh home for a midlife crisis-inspired journey through the desert. When his trusty steed kicks the bucket, he’s left to figure out what to do about his predicament — and how he got there in the first place.
“He is on his quest for authenticity, trying to decide who he is today, who he’s become,” Graci says. “And was there ever a time that he was more the Hobart that he decided to be, and is it possible to get back there? That’s really what he’s asking throughout the course of this play and what he’s trying to discover. It’s beautiful in its examination of solitary behavior in all of its buffoonery and all of the things that we do when we’re confident we’re alone versus this public persona that we present.
“It’s this fantastic juxtaposition between the very realistic main character Hobart and these challenges he’s facing, and the dead horse and the hole that he’s dug, the grave,” Graci adds. “And then the fantastical kind of journey of the mind when someone’s in a very solitary place.”
Graci’s no stranger to one-person plays. This is the fifth she’s directed, and she’s learned that the rehearsal process is really no different than a multi-character production.
“We have a history of producing one-person plays, because there’s something about that form that is so unbelievably challenging and intimate,” she says. “There’s no escape for anyone once you embark on this medium of a one-person show. I think as a director I’ve grown in the art form itself.”
On the other hand, Kicking a Dead Horse is Neale’s first time taking the stage alone. A core member of PURE’s ensemble, he most recently appeared in Superior Donuts and Fool’s Lear. He says rehearsals have been a challenge, but Shepard’s well-written script was easy to read and learn.
“It’s a monologue, but it’s written in a different way. There’s dialogue, it’s just that he’s talking to himself,” Neale says. “He’s conversing with himself, which keeps the script moving. Sometimes he’s amusing himself, sometimes he’s talking to the audience, which is some unknown faceless soul out in the middle of the desert, and sometimes he’s having this dialogue, this argument with himself about what he should do, what he’s doing out there in the middle of the desert. It really keeps moving and rivets your attention.”
In other words, multiple personalities will be on stage, but just one actor.
“It’s a little daunting, a little lonely, but I’m enjoying the challenge,” he adds. “Once the audience gets there, I won’t feel so alone.”