Horseplay: Karen Malpede’s Latest Creation Evokes the Wordless Love People and Animals Can Experience

A grieving widow and an untamable horse are at the center of this heartfelt meditation on freedom, love, patience and compromise.

Eleanor J. Bader Feb 16, 2022

“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened,” writer Anatole France once declared.  

Animal lovers agree. Indeed, the wordless love between people and animals has long been recognized as healing balm offering comfort, companionship and mirth to those lucky enough to form such bonds.

Blue Valiant, playwright Karen Malpede’s latest work, zeroes in on the relationship between humans and horses, specifically between a wild roan named Blue and a retired public relations executive (played with stunning elegance and heart-shattering restraint by Kathleen Chalfant) named Hanna Doyle who is mourning both the drug-overdose death of her only child and the dissolution of her marriage. At her wit’s end with grief and rage, when Doyle sees Blue galloping in an open, but fenced-in, field, she is immediately smitten.

Money is no object so she approaches a nearby barn and quickly introduces herself to the elderly man sitting outside (played with gruff disaffection by George Bartenieff) and inquires about the ownership of the horse. Within minutes she offers the man, Sam Brown, $10,000. Brown is nonplussed, wary, and informs Doyle that this is a horse that can neither be owned nor trained. In fact, he describes the roan as uncontrollable, seemingly intent on destroying himself by repeatedly ramming his body into the fence. But Doyle is not deterred. Instead, the challenge intrigues her and she sets out to befriend Blue, visiting him each day with a handful of carrots and good intentions. 

Hanna Doyle is at wit’s end with grief and rage when she sees Blue galloping in a open, but fenced-in field. She is immediately smitten.

What unfolds over the next 82 minutes is an intense meditation on freedom, love, patience, taming and compromise. In short, it’s the stuff of human connection.      

In addition, as an uneasy alliance develops between Sam and Hannah — he wants her money and she wants Blue –— the pair find themselves in an off-kilter but oddly meaningful relationship. Later, when Maya Zelaya, an undocumented Central American teenager whose father was deported by ICE agents, (well-played by Millie Ortiz) briefly enters the mix, the audience witnesses Blue’s slow transformation. The reciprocal bonds that unfurl calm the horse while at the same time enabling Hannah and Maya to cope with their horrific losses and the rootlessness of unanticipated political and personal upheaval.  

Blue’s gruff owner (played by George Bartenieff) confronts Hanna Doyle. Photo: Ellen Lynch

Blue Valiant was performed outdoors at the Farm Arts Collective in Damascus, Pennsylvania, last May. An original score by Arthur Rosen and projected images of Blue created by horse photographer Ellen Lynch gave the story added depth and gravitas. But while the production was extremely well-received, the continuing COVID-19 pandemic has made additional performances uncertain. Thankfully, a filmed version of Blue Valiant is now available on YouTube. . 

Blue Valiant was produced by Theater Three Collaborative in association with the Farm Arts Collective, written and directed by Karen Malpede, starring George Bartenieff, Kathleen Chalfant, and Millie Ortiz. Music by Arthur Rosen. Photo projections by Ellen Lynch. 82 minutes, 2021, available on YouTube.

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