Dublin your fun

Sam Shepard gallops back to the Public-by way of Ireland.

JUST DESERT Rea wanders through a bleak Western landscape.

JUST DESERT Rea wanders through a bleak Western landscape.

Jazz, apple pie, the Fourth of July and Sam Shepard plays. If there’s such a thing as a homegrown playwright, Shepard is it. Yet his first new play in four years, Kicking a Dead Horse, opens at the Public Theater July 14, a year after its world premiere at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. We’re used to jobs being outsourced to India and American chains opening all over the globe (Thomas L. Friedman has even penned a “Golden Arches” theory of conflict prevention), but theater is a live, local art form. So when iconic movie star and Off-Off trailblazer Shepard—who owns a cattle ranch, plays old-timey music and writes about the West—debuts his new play abroad, you have to ask, Is theater going global?

“It’s very simple in my head,” explains the Abbey’s director, Fiach Mac Conghail (pronounced, he says, “like Fiat, the car, with a cough at the end,” and “mak-conn-EEL”). “Ireland has gone through a car crash in terms of change. We’ve become quite a globalized society.” One of the most pressing debates in his country has been whether Ireland should become more European, or embrace America’s culture and work ethic. Presenting a play about America seemed a natural, albeit indirect, way to interrogate Irish identity. Mac Conghail, a self-styled “artist manqué,” has run the Abbey since 2005 and originally wanted to ask Shepard to present a series, one play a year. Instead, the playwright offered to pen something for actor Stephen Rea, an associate artist at the Abbey. Thirty-four years earlier, Shepard actually wrote Geography of a Horse Dreamer for Rea and directed him in it at London’s Royal Court Theatre.

Kicking a Dead Horse follows Manhattan art dealer Hobart Struther (Rea), who’s trying to bury his horse in the desert. Struther’s quest for authenticity is a comic, bittersweet meditation on the American mythos, but the play’s absurdist style evokes that iconic Irish writer Samuel Beckett. Shepard has long called Beckett a major influence (along with Little Richard). The Public’s Oskar Eustis describes Kicking a Dead Horse as “a Beckettian clown show.” Rea, whom Beckett once directed in Endgame, says that Shepard also uses “language beyond meaning.” The actor, whose tired, craggy face becomes animated describing how exhausted he feels, seems in awe of the project. “It’s one of the biggest plays I’ve been in,” he says. Still, he stresses the bleak humor underneath the material. “It’s also hilarious,” he says. “It’s an essentially comic situation: a man with a dead horse.”

“Cultures have to do with people’s sense of humor,” Shepard explained during an discussion sponsored by The Paris Review last month at Joe’s Pub. “The Irish really listen—they love language.” And apparently they love him, too: The Abbey has already commissioned another Shepard play, Ages of the Moon, written for Rea and Sean McGinley. That opens next March.

The Public and the Abbey share several affinities: Eustis and Mac Conghail took over their respective institutions three years ago. They also have the same impulse to revitalize the spaces while reconnecting to their missions. Kicking is their third partnership: The Public presented Mark O’Rowe’s Terminus at its Under the Radar Festival in January; while at that same festival, Mac Conghail saw Tarell McCraney’s The Brothers Size, which he brought to the Abbey (his theater doesn’t depend on subscriptions, so it can schedule work on short notice).

“We are living in an increasingly globalized world—whether we like it or not,” Eustis says. “Capital has figured out how to be global. Culture has got to figure it out too.” Of course, going international is easier for some shows. The Lion King is the same spectacle in New York, London, Paris and Taipei (where it opens in August). But Kicking will have a different resonance here than it did in Dublin. Mac Conghail says that only enriches the play. “It’s not that the work itself is going global,” he clarifies. “It’s that conversations between artists are happening on a global level.”

Kicking a Dead Horse is at the Public Theater.