Smoother stylists have arrived in the theater since he made his debut 40 years ago, and other playwrights have flashed more pure storytelling ability, but when it comes to mythmaking, there’s still nobody who can touch Sam Shepard. With his larger-than-life fathers and evocations of what was once the Wild West, Shepard writes plays that feel like legends, that reach deeper than day-to-day dramas. Think of how, in the closing moments of Buried Child, the exhumation of the baby both wraps up a specific family story and gives the play the ritual force of Greek tragedy—and somehow manages to not feel ridiculous.
In the best moments of Kicking a Dead Horse, Shepard’s new play at the Public, he shows once again his knack for writing plays that are really webs of resonance. Hobart Struther, a famous art dealer in his sixties, has been marooned in the badlands by the unexpected death of his horse, which he now struggles to bury. The setup alone is rich enough to start some synapses firing. The hole that Struther has dug for the horse all but quotes the gravedigger scene in Hamlet; the scenic desolation—a washed-out backdrop, like a museum diorama—puts you in mind of Waiting for Godot, though with rigor mortis horse legs pointing skyward instead of Beckett’s dead tree.
On this broad canvas, amid comical treatments of mortality and existential puzzling, Shepard directs your eye to the subject of creativity: how and why tiny humans scratch out works of art in all that vastness. At times, Struther seems aware that he’s a fictional creature. “You ask yourself, how did this come to be? How is it possible? What wild and woolly part of the imagination dropped me here?” he asks in a speech that could refer just as easily to how the play was written as to how Hobart got stuck in the desert. By the time he gets around to confessing that he’s “not exactly sure what ‘voice’ to use,” we might be hearing a character talking to himself, or an actor making a confession to his audience, or—if you’re feeling fanciful—a note that the playwright scribbled next to the actual dialogue in the script. Delivered by Stephen Rea (in a flat nasal drawl like Bob Dylan’s), speeches like this one give you the dizzying sense that Shepard’s play is investigating itself as it goes.
Trouble is, there aren’t many speeches like that one, and what speeches there are tend to be clustered in the first half-hour or so. The lurch from captivating to ponderous to actively annoying raises a question: Should we feel scorn that Shepard lost his grip on all the strings he’d gathered in his hand, or admiration for the fact that nobody else could have held them to begin with? As the play drags on, Hobart has conversations with himself about his wife (mainly boring) and the death of Crazy Horse (mainly strange). Now and then he indulges in thudding symbolism, as when a hat—a totem of history, possibly?—is tossed very meaningfully into the very meaningful grave. (It would have taken Richard Foreman to make that kind of gesture stick.)
What went wrong? What could have led a great playwright to stumble so badly? I blame George Bush. In the play’s early scenes, Struther muses on the Lewis and Clark expedition, especially Lewis’s suicide, offering this haunting comment about America: “Maybe he foresaw something. Maybe he saw exactly what we were going to do with it.” By play’s end, though, all subtlety vanishes, as Struther shouts his way through a heavy-handed litany of all the things we’ve done with it. “Destroyed Education. Turned our children into criminals. Demolished Art! Invaded Sovereign Nations!” (There’s more along these lines.) The occasionally dazzling first half of this story—when Shepard seems on his way to writing his version of The Master Builder, Ibsen’s great drama about an aging artist reflecting on his lost powers—reminds you that, at this point, he’s earned the right to produce any kind of play he damn well pleases. Yet the wayward second half reveals—as if his last play, the feckless satire The God of Hell, didn’t do it already—that Shepard’s genius does not blend well with Bush hatred. Here’s another reason to be glad that the inauguration’s less than six months away.