Nothing symbolizes the rugged individuality of the American psyche like a man and his horse riding through the Badlands of Wyoming alone. In PURE’s Theatre’s production of Sam Shepard’s 2007 play Kicking a Dead Horse, Hobart Struther has become disenchanted with his posh lifestyle as an art dealer, selling $20 Wyoming saloon art for tens of thousands of dollars to galleries and private collectors in the East, when he decides to embark on a holy mission: a quest for authenticity. He gathers provisions for a week: tent, food, flashlight, blanket, new cowboy hat, and, curiously, a long-handled shovel. Ironically, when his nameless horse suddenly dies, Struther (thoughtfully portrayed by veteran PURE actor Randy Neale) is determined to bury his 500-pound horse properly, if he can somehow manage to flip him over and into the freshly dug grave. Out of frustration, Struther kicks and curses the dead horse. “I keep making the same mistakes and nothing is getting better,” he says. The futility is blatant.
Struther’s existential quest and the dead horse work as metaphors on many levels. America’s lost virtue and the demise of the iconic Wild West are recurring themes for the playwright, but he has done them with more authenticity in his previous works. Struther seeks to redefine his identity after years of peddling crap as if it were fine art. In his crisis of conscience, he admits that he is “daily convinced [he] should not be living.” Struther feels whole again back in his homeland, but his ephemeral salvation yields to his fear and desperation. It’s a lost cause, the proverbial dead horse. “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?” As an expression of Shepard’s consciousness, and perhaps the country’s Jungian collective consciousness, Struther wails through a litany of America’s sins against humanity and nature. His cowboy alter-ego serves as his conscience, challenging him, pushing him, stating the obvious with a harsh truth. Struther’s feelings of impotence and futility are overwhelming, and reinforced by the sudden death of his gelding.
In the 75-minute monologue, Neale adeptly navigates the “dialogue” between Struther’s conscious personality and his cowboy alter-ego. Neale sorts through an assortment of emotions, confidence, regret, fear, and optimism as Struther faces his mortality. Director Sharon Graci channels Neale’s energy through pacing and character tasks, such as looping rope, to keep the pace from dragging, which is mostly successful.
Breaking the intensity with morbid levity, Neale uses the life-size horse carcass as lounge furniture. Graci injects humor also through technical devices. When Struther observes to the audience that the sun is setting — click! — the lighting changes from the blue sky to the yellow and orange sunset.
Dead Horse is not Shepard’s most inventive or freshest work, but he remains one of America’s greatest playwrights. PURE ends their nomadic 2010-2011 season with Kicking a Dead Horse, upholding their custom of offering recent and relevant theater.