True East: Sam Shepard Returns to New York

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

Shepard's first show, a double-bill of Cowboys and The Rock Garden, opened at Theater Genesis on October 10, 1964. Cowboys featured three youths who speak in various accents, discuss their favorite breakfasts, and occasionally fend off Comanche Indians. The Rock Garden is an elliptical family drama, which includes a distressingly frank monologue on the male orgasm. The few critics who attended wrote scathing appraisals, save for the Voice's Michael Smith, who reviewed the shows favorably, if somewhat bemusedly: "Shepard is still feeling his way," Smith wrote, "but his voice is distinctly American and distinctly his own."

In the following years, Shepard's voice resounded in most of Off-Off-Broadway's spaces. Ellen Stewart of La MaMa, whom Shepard describes as "the centerfold of that deal, a tremendous force," staged several of his plays and also hired him as a waiter, "serving hot chocolate at the theater when it was over on Second Avenue. We always had the cops coming in, and the fire department, and they were busting her all the time because of fire regulations." Shepard remembers one instance when some very baffled firefighters intruded on Tom O'Horgan's production of Genet's The Maids, in which young men donned French-maid costumes. "It was really a scene," says Shepard, "and the firemen shut it all down, and then she'd start it up again." He also remembers Amiri Baraka, then known as LeRoi Jones—"the most amazing American writer at that point. He did some stuff I don't think anyone else was doing. Those were the real deal—Slave Ship, The Toilet, Dutchman."

Amiri Baraka now writes poetry in New Jersey, while Stewart, nearly 90, continues to work at La MaMa. But Shepard has outlived many other friends from those years. He recalls Al Carmines of Judson Church as "a beauty. He was far more than just a minister; he was an artist himself. A wonderful man—very soft, very gentle." And he remembers Joe Cino, the founder of the Greenwich Village coffeehouse theater Caffe Cino, as "very volatile, very Greek. He had something cooking all the time, which was fantastic." Yet it's Joe Chaikin, a longtime collaborator who died in 2003, whose loss Shepard most feels: "It's a huge hole," he says. "I'm still not over it. I still miss him. His perspective was so unique. He was an actor, a director, a writer—he covered all that ground. That's hard to find now."

Fiona Aboud

If New York's a somewhat haunted site, populated by people and places no longer extant, Shepard has recently found himself reinvigorated by Dublin. His voice rose and his sentences quickened when discussing his connection to the Abbey Theatre and its artistic director, Fiach Mac Conghail. He also speaks admiringly of Ireland's younger writers, particularly Conor McPherson ("I love The Seafarer") and Martin McDonagh ("I think he's fantastic—he's got the chops"). Mac Conghail is largely responsible for Kicking a Dead Horse. Over lunch last year, Mac Conghail mentioned Rea's availability, "and I started racking my brains," Shepard says, "about what I could write for him, and then this horse thing came up."

Rea and Shepard hadn't worked together since Geography of a Horse Dreamer, Shepard's directorial debut. But they both had exceptionally fond memories of their earlier days in the rehearsal room. "It wasn't really like other rehearsals," Rea recalls during a telephone conversation, "in the sense that [Shepard] removed all the obstacles. . . . He was very clear. I remember thinking after a day and a half of rehearsal that if we'd known the lines, we could have done the play right then. It was remarkable."

Shepard described Rea as "extreme[ly] intelligent, as well as being a brilliant actor. He has this multiplicity of approaches, and he's not afraid." Both men characterized the mood of the present play as astonishingly similar to their past collaboration: "It's the same," says Rea. "We're very relaxed. He says to me, 'What do you want to do? What do you want to do now?' That's pretty much the way it was before. . . . We're maybe a little more garrulous than before. We've maybe got more to talk about, because we've had 30 more years of life. It's a pleasure." Rea says this even while admitting that doing the play is exhausting: "I have to try and find a way to do it in a way that doesn't wreck me. Yes, it's a massive responsibility."

Shepard's recent literary enthusiasms and his lead actor are Irish, but his preoccupations remain distinctly American. Kicking a Dead Horse returns to Shepard's interest—almost a Rousseau-like concern—about how men have lost their feeling for the land. Throughout the play, Rea's character Hobart mourns his lack of "authenticity" and longs for his lost youth. Hobart has made his fortune buying up cowboy art and selling it on the East Coast, pillaging his own heritage. Now he's so desperate to return to the West that during the play, he literally immerses himself in the prairie's earth. Hobart speaks of "The smell, too—the deeper you go. The history of it. The dinosaur. Bones. Ancient aching bones. The fossil fuels."

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