Horse Country

Scotsman First of the Fringe Firsts, 2002
Scotsman Fringe First, 2002
Herald Angel (Director, John Clancy), 2002
The Stage Best Actor (David Calvitto), 2002
Best of the Adelaide Fringe, 2004

Monkey Wrench Theater, New York, 1997
The Present Company, New York, 1999
Amaryllis Theatre Company, Philadelphia, 2001
Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh Festival Fringe, 2002
Alchymia Theatre Company, Chicago, 2002
Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 2003
United Kingdom Tour, 2003
Brighton Festival, 2003
Riverside Studios, London, 2003
The Du Maurier World Stage Festival, Toronto, 2003
Adelaide Fringe Festival, 2004
Belvoir St. Theatre, Sydney, 2004
Noorderzon Festival, The Netherlands, 2004
Beyond the Proscenium Theatre, Sacramento, 2005
Needtheater, Los Angeles, 2006
Wilton’s Music Hall, London, 2021
Colchester Fringe, 2022
Assembly, Edinburgh Festival Fringe, 2022
United Kingdom Tour, 2022
Adelaide Fringe Festival, 2023

There aren’t many people left who actually saw vaudeville live. The cultural memory of its frenetic cross-talk floats to the surface now and again, as the Marx Brothers pop up on TV or someone raises the cry of “Who’s on first?”, and occasionally you even see its comic techniques resurrected in contemporary theatre. There, they are rare enough their seeming anarchy can befuddle an audience: One couple leaving Horse Country last night after its opening at World Stage Wednesday seemed to think they had just witnessed something without meaning. They couldn’t have been more wrong … With this remarkable duologue, the U.S. playwright C.J. Hopkins mimics the looping and loopy language of classic vaudeville but uses the schtick for a deeper purpose than simple entertainment. In this ironic spectacle in which entertainers cannot entertain themselves, Hopkins mounts a brilliant (and hilarious) critique of the emptiness of American life and the meaninglessness of the popular culture that attempts to fill the void … Toronto, a city that never suffers from a shortage of Broadway pap, needs to see more American theatre like this. Horse Country is also a very timely reminder that the United States is not always the single-minded monolith whose censorious jingoism has been plaguing us in recent weeks. Hopkins’ ability to look honestly into the black heart of existence is a true expression of free speech; his artfulness in fashioning a critique of culture from the ashes of popular entertainment is a true marker of civilization. **** KATE TAYLOR, TORONTO GLOBE AND MAIL

Sometimes, the best shows come swerving at you when you least expect them … in seconds it becomes clear we’re in the presence of a really substantial piece of theatre here; sharp, brilliant, intense, fast-moving, made for the moment we live in. At heart, Horse Country is a new Waiting for Godot set in contemporary America; the two speakers in CJ Hopkins’ text are off-duty ‘regular guys’, perhaps policemen, who have lost the nine of diamonds from their deck of cards, and therefore, for all their bluster, don’t know what to do next … [but] unlike Beckett’s characters, Bob and Sam belong to a particular country and time. Their task is to take us on a tour not of the human condition in general, but of the human condition as filtered through the presumptions and values of mainstream America today … although their conversation ranges widely, from God, fishing and beggars to gambling and art, the rhetorical question is, “is this a great country, or isn’t it?” re-echoes like a chorus … what emerges, over 70 minutes of rapid-fire dialogue, is a portrait of a culture caught in a strange and painful paradox between progressive and reactionary attitudes; of a deep nostalgia for a traditional world of “men with guns and women without clothes”, matched with an unquenchable human yearning towards the unexpected, the creative, the new.

They tout it as “a surrealist comedy”.  It is far more. It is like a deep dive into Beckett, Sartre and Kafka. Written by American satirist C.J. Hopkins, it is absurdist, existential, satirical, and deliciously manic with a nod in the direction of Laurel and Hardy. Most importantly, it is a rivetingly good piece of theatre superbly performed in impeccable American accents by a couple of ace actors from a Welsh theatre company. Here, just to add to the descriptive melange, it is presented in a seriously cute round tent called The Bally set beneath trees on the verdant slopes of Guttony in Rymill Park. Tousle-haired Sam in denim bib-overalls is the innocent hick parrying with sleek straight man, Bob, who wears shirt and tie. Both are lost in torrents of verbiage, sometimes puzzled, sometimes combative, sometimes political. Ostensibly, they are sharing a bottle of bourbon after a game of cards which was abandoned because of the loss of the nine of diamonds. Their subjects segue in discursive circles touching on seals and fishing, capitalism and crime. Yes, even horses. They are anarchists who hate anarchists. They express the best and worst of American nationalistic sentiments. They talk ceaselessly, incessantly, desperately, furiously. They are trapped in frenetic, meaningless discourse bringing to mind the predicaments of Godot and Endgame and NoExit. But these are the prisoners of Horse Country, performed with peerless vociferance by Daniel Lllewelyn-Williams and Michael Edwards and directed by Mark Bell. The play’s humour is lateral with surprise throwaways. The audience concentrates to keep up. This is not hard, since it is rivetingly intense – but only for 65 breathtaking minutes. It was a hit at the Edinburgh Fringe and it is destined to be a hit here. A sensationally satisfying dose of transfixing bafflegab. ***** SAMELA HARRIS, THE BAREFOOT REVIEW

It would be easy to label CJ Hopkins’ Horse Country as cod-Beckett … But it’s much more than that, a feral ferris-wheel of comedy, confusion, contradiction, obfuscation and bent-out-of-shape straight talking that leaps out of the room at you and harnesses you to its mischievous mindset … A modern day Vladimir and Estragon who aren’t waiting for anyone – least of all the audience to keep up – their window on the world is one of possibility and quid pro quo impossibilities … All of it is delivered with a quite magnificent high-octane comic brio by David Calvitto and Ben Schneider … The direction of the piece, as opposed to the direction it takes us, is crisp and clear. But it is the verbal pyrotechnics of the text itself which makes Horse Country special. This is one philosophical nag that looks set to run and run. ***** ALAN CHADWICK, METRO

At a time when world conflict is raising its ugly head again, Horse Country’s exploration of the theme of conflict, whether personal, political, ethical, spiritual or actual seems sadly pertinent. Horse Country is a euphemism for the United States and the play opens with two seasoned comedy pros, Bob and Sam, propping up a bar in downtown America. American values, or rather global capitalism, is laid bare and exposed during the discussions between the two, which encompass golf, horses, fishing trips, talking seal acts and card games. A futile search for the nine of diamonds, which they have lost from their pack of cards, seems to sum up the need for a set of values to fill the hollow yearning at the heart of the nation. Calvitto and Schneider are very skilled performers and their clown-like precision-timing is brilliant and funny; they also bring, at the same time, a profound sense of isolation and alienation to the play. Bleak, Godot-like exchanges at the beginning gather pace with such velocity that by the end we appear to be witnessing Vladimir and Estragon on speed. CJ Hopkins is a great wordsmith and Horse Country is a robustly formed and fully fleshed play with the existential bare-boned spirit of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. This production, not surprisingly, won several prestigious prizes at the Edinburgh Festival last year.

CJ Hopkins’s two-hander brings the spirit of Godot to America’s bars and puts the bourbon in Beckett. It feels like a serious piece of theatre rather than fringe fluff … brilliantly directed by John Clancy and acted with terrific flair and feel by Ben Scheider and David Calvitto. **** LYN GARDNER, THE GUARDIAN

Equipped as it is with the men in black machine gun exchange of Quentin Tarantino by way of Beckett, C J Hopkins’s deceptively small but perfectly formed duologue is a near-perfect 21st-century pop cultural off-the-record exchange. Performed brilliantly … John Clancy’s production is the epitome of off-off Broadway skew-wiffly, and hilariously at odds with the mainstream, and much bigger and deeper than the sum of its apparent parts. **** THE HERALD

Hopkins’ text is stimulating and thought-provoking. Its rhythm creates a pace that runs on climaxes and come-downs, reminiscent in style and content of Edward Albee, and life. With John Clancy’s precise direction, and David Calvitto and Ben Schneider’s well-timed performances, this is a welcome addition to the canon of all things absurd and beautiful. **** THE LIST

A session of philosophical furniture trashing … CJ Hopkins’ play is a timely re-examination of the wild, wild West – the ‘horse country’ – brimming with inverted commas and a post-apocalyptic sentiment that is also in line with the finest of American avant-garde theatre tradition. THE STAGE

Arts Projects Australia has brought in a few excellent pieces from Clancy Productions in New York. Horse Country features Bob (Kurt Rhoads) and Sam (Ben Schneider), two jokers in a bar slugging back the bourbon and putting the world to rights. Freewheeling through a conversation with more revs than David Mamet they are killing time by waiting – for some poker playing Godot perhaps? The subjects on the agenda veer through the American Century, suggesting disconnection, historical guilt and calling up nostalgia for yet more frontier now that the West has turned into LA. The actors are sharp, very skilled and fun to watch; the play is as plain as a broken chair and sometimes as enigmatic as whatever happened to that nine of diamonds. MURRAY BRAMWELL, ADELAIDE REVIEW

There’s a long and honourable tradition of shows with two protagonists (usually male) trapped together in an unusual situation. ‘The Dumb Waiter’, ‘The Zoo Story’, ‘Steptoe and Son’, most of Laurel and Hardy, ‘Waiting for Godot’ and Rick and Ade in ‘Bottom’ to name a few. To that list, we can now add Horse Country, CJ Hopkins’s just over 60-minute play, first seen at Edinburgh in 2002. This time it’s Flying Bridge Theatre Company, based in Newport, to bring Sam and Bob to life. And in the form of Daniel Llewelyn-Williams and Michael Edwards, they are in very safe hands. As the audience enters, both actors are onstage, slippers on, seemingly channelling their inner Laurel and Hardy (also playing as the front of House music), in particular Edward’s nervous grinning and waving to members of the crowd embodying the spirit of Mr Laurel. However, the cosiness does not last long as the play begins in a blizzard of words, images and ideas which shake us out of any complacency. Sam and Bob, our protagonists, take us through a dazzling series of verbal loops, covering fishing, trained seals and sea lions, the usefulness of horses and children (once both are broken in) and ‘freedom’. And here’s the nub, for all Sam and Bob’s talk and dreams of freedom, they are essentially trapped in a system they cannot control and from which they seemingly cannot escape. The search for the lost nine of diamonds from their deck of cards is as futile as their quest to go “out there”, we get an occasional glimpse and then it disappears. ***** GET YOUR COATS ON

*2003-2004 touring by Clancy Productions, Theatre Tours International and Arts Projects Australia; 2021-2023 touring by Flying Bridge Theatre Co.