Lavish horse funerals and terrifying taxidermy are the subjects of "Beating a Dead Horse," which will open Bloomington Playwright Project’s 2017-18 season Sept. 28.
The story follows two brothers who own a failing pet funeral store they inherited from their father. An older lady requests a grand funeral for her racehorse and offers enough money to save their business. She drops off the horse and leaves. But, the horse isn’t dead yet.
“It’s pretty farcical, little bit of slapstick, pretty fast paced,” writer Jenny Stafford said. “It’s sort of an hour and a half to come in and escape your life and get immersed in a ridiculous world.”
The idea came to Stafford when she was reading a newspaper and saw an advertisement for a pet funeral home. From there, she did research and visited one in Oregon. Despite the play being a comedy with morbid moments, Stafford said she was struck by how comforting a service the funeral home owner provided in that community.
“This was like a service to come in and comfort people who were grieving and bereft,” Stafford said. “I was really struck with that dichotomy of ideas.”
Stafford began writing “Beating a Dead Horse” in 2015 and has been constantly revising and workshopping it. The play won Bloomington Playwright Project’s Reva Shiner Comedy Award, and as a result it won the opportunity to be shown for the first time as a full-scale production.
“It started pretty much only as a comedy with not a lot underneath it, but as I’ve been working on it, it’s sort of morphed,” Stafford said. “There’s some deeper human things these characters are dealing with.”
One of the main characters recently got out of prison, and the other has a pending sentence. All the while, there is tension between them based on their relationships with their father.
There’s pressure on both of them to rise from their current situations, Hank McDaniel, the actor playing Todd, one of the brothers, said.
“It deals with some family issues,” McDaniel said. “It also asks how far you’ll go for the people you love, and what’s the right thing to do in a situation.”
Among the challenges in this production were figuring out how to make a horse feel present in the story without ever seeing it on stage, Stafford said.
“You can’t look at past productions, past performances,” McDaniel said. “We’re literally the first cast to produce this show. That’s a bit of a challenge, but a bit of a freedom as well.”
Stafford said he hopes to see how the jokes fall and see what revisions need to be made.
“My main goal is to see if it works,” Stafford said. “This is the first opportunity I’ve had to see the whole thing fully realized, so I’m really interested to see how an audience reacts to it.”
McDaniel said he hopes people can laugh at the absurdity of the play.
“They can come in for a moment and not think about their problems or the things that bother them on a daily basis and just laugh,” McDaniel said. “Laughter is such a huge medicine, and I hope that everyone gets their dose.”
“Beating a Dead Horse” runs from Sept. 28 to Oct. 14. Tickets start at $10 for students with an ID.
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