True East: Sam Shepard Returns to New York

The American icon is back in the saddle with a new play at the Public

In 1974, Sam Shepard directed the debut of his play Geography of a Horse Dreamer at London's Royal Court Theater. Irish actor Stephen Rea starred as Cody—a mysterious man, held captive in a hotel room, who can predict the outcome of horse races. But as the play progresses, Cody's gift wanes. While his captors struggle to coax more winners from him, one mutters: "It ain't my idea of a good time beating a dead horse, you know?"

Shepard himself might feel differently these days: He's currently having a very good time directing his latest play, Kicking a Dead Horse. The piece, virtually a solo show for Rea, begins performances at the Public Theater this week. Reuniting with Shepard, Rea plays Hobart Struther, an art dealer trying to revive his relationship with the land. He trades his penthouse apartment for the Plains and purchases plenty of cowboy gear. But when his horse dies, stranding him in a desolate prairie, Hobart begins subjecting the poor steed to all manner of abuse. According to reviews in Ireland, audiences at Dublin's Abbey Theatre, where the play premiered, relished every kick.

The play marks a series of returns for Shepard: to New York, where he hasn't staged a play in four years; to the Public Theater, where he hasn't worked since the premiere of "Simpatico" in 1994; and to subjects and symbols that have absorbed him for decades. In his 44-year career as a writer, actor, director, and filmmaker, he's assembled a body of work varied in style but distinct in tone—hectic, enigmatic, wrenching. He writes muscular and melancholy plays, suffused with characters longing for connections—to self, to others, to the very soil—connections that seem uncertain if not impossible. From the frantic one-acts of his early days to the family dramas of his middle years to the political works he has more recently created, Shepard's plays demand substantial emotional and intellectual engagement. But Kicking a Dead Horse unfolds more easily: Shepard, in a Beckettian mode, finds comedy—even slapstick—in Hobart's desolate predicament.

Fiona Aboud

On a recent afternoon, shortly before the show's first previews, Shepard seems in a bit of a predicament himself, trapped in a rehearsal room at the Public, a massive fiberglass horse splayed nearby, its plastic eyes limpid and mournful. Though polite, Shepard wasn't terribly eager to submit to interviews. These days, he says, he can only stay in New York for "about a week" before he begins champing at the bit: "I've been here closing in on a month now," he says with a laugh that betrays some strain. Though well into his sixties, Shepard embodies the mystique that's long surrounded him. In jeans and a green button-down shirt, with cragged features and silvering hair, the dirt from the California deserts of his boyhood still seeming to scuff his boots, Shepard looks the part of the playwright-cum-cowboy, the literati pin-up. But that image can eclipse the intelligence of his work, just as his vernacular language and very voice (soft, unassuming, with a hint of a drawl) can belie the sophistication of his ideas. That Western aura also belies the many years he spent in New York, living in East Village dumps, working odd jobs, writing his first plays, and earning the first of his unprecedented 11 Obie awards.

These days, when he visits Manhattan, Shepard experiences New York with a sort of double-vision—he sees at once a grimy, scrappy city, peopled with the dead, and also its cleaner current replacement. "It's totally weird," he says, describing a recent walk downtown. "You recognize the buildings and the streets and all that stuff, but it's like you're walking in the past." On a stroll, Shepard might pass squats in the East Village now given way to luxury apartment buildings, the old home of La MaMa that now houses Stomp, an unfamiliar Soho. "The Open Theater had a place down on Spring Street," he recalls. "Now, when you get out on Spring Street, it's so gentrified. Then, we were stepping over winos to get to the theater. Now, you don't even recognize it."

Shepard arrived in New York in 1963, at the age of 19. With some vague thoughts of an acting career and eager to escape his hometown, he joined an itinerant repertory theater called the Bishop's Company. "I had no idea what I was getting into," he says. "I applied from a little ad in a Southern California newspaper that said they wanted actors. I went in and I read a Shakespeare thing, and I was so nervous I actually read the footnotes. But they hired me." He worked with them for six months, performing all over New England. He acted in several shows in Brooklyn, one in the living room of the poet Marianne Moore. "I got to meet her," says Shepard. "I had no idea who she was at the time. She was very gracious." When the company's tour bus arrived in Times Square, he got off for good, and made New York his new home.

A high-school friend, the son of Charles Mingus, helped him find a place to live and a job busing tables at the Village Gate. Shepard didn't lose his nervousness during auditions, so he began writing dialogue himself. This came to the attention of Ralph Cook, the headwaiter at the Gate and the director of Theater Genesis, which performed upstairs at St. Mark's Church-in-the-Bowery, the space that Richard Foreman now uses. Cook heard about Shepard's writing and asked him to bring some plays around. "We were in rehearsal for [two plays] within that week," Shepard recalls. "We had no money. I can remember getting props off the street. We'd take Yuban coffee cans, punch a hole in them, and use them for lights. We did it all from scratch, which was pretty incredible."

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