The Kentucky Cycle
What: Plays by Robert Schenkkan, presented by California Repertory,
directed by Trevor Bishop
Where: The Armory, 854 E. 7th St., Long Beach
When: The two cycles continue in repertory through December 13,
including, beginning Saturday, November 15 performances of Part I at 2 p.m.
and Part II at 8 p.m. on Saturdays. Tuesday-Thursday performances begin at
7:30 p.m., Friday performances at 8 p.m.
Tickets: $20, $17 for students and seniors with valid identification.
Information: (562) 985-5526 or www.calrep.org
By John Farrell
“The Kentucky Cycle,” playwright Robert Schenkkan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning cycle of one act plays about three fictional families living two centuries of American history on a Kentucky hillside, is made up of nine short plays that combine to over five hours of drama.
See it in the dynamic new production being presented by the California Repertory Company at the Armory in Long Beach (it continues there in repertory performance through December 13) and you’ll recognize that, despite the program notes, it is really two plays, two very different looks at its subjects, one a murderous and less-than appealing set of dramas that function more as polemic than, the other a much better drawn attempt to reveal character as well as politics.
You’ll also recognize it as a dramatic tour-de-force, a demonstration of acting skill and sheer inexhaustible energy which can carry a weak story and stodgy dialogue forward despite everything a playwright can do to make fake history look, well, fake.
“Kentucky Cycle” was a big hit when it was performed at the Mark Forum in Los Angeles during the theater’s 25th anniversary season in 1992, won the Pulitzer and went on to success on Broadway, the first play to start on the West Coast and achieve success in New York. It has been much acclaimed for its insightful look at American history as seen through the eyes of three families and seven generations of Kentucky families, but it is, in large part, an inaccurate conflation of every kind of violence that could be found in frontier America, without a redeeming personality amongst the first five generations of the Rowen, Biggs and Talbert families whose intertwining lives the play chronicles from 1775 to 1975.
The first part of the cycle, five one-act plays which stretch historically from the beginning of the American Revolution in 1775 until the end of the Civil War in 1865 (and lasts over three hours, all tolled) features roughly, 24 murders by gunshot, multiple stabbing, wartime slaughter, germ warfare and infant exposure, plus sexual assault, rape, mutilation and the planned assassination of a military superior. Pretty grim, and plenty of very loud gunshots.
The second half, four one-acts, takes the action from 1890 and Grover Cleveland to 1975 and Gerald Ford, with even louder gunshots (technology improves over the centuries) and something the first half misses entirely: characters you actually care about whose lives grow through their experiences. It is almost as though the playwright decided to experiment with an entirely new concept of drama after exhausting all the melodramatic possibilities of frontier violence.
This harsh criticism of the play itself is not reflected in the ensemble of 17 actors who play the many roles that 200 years of “Kentucky Cycle” offers. There are 68 in all, according to the program, and the complexity is reflected in the fact that just one actor has only one role. They manage the difficult costume changes, and the equally difficult character changes, with sheer bravado. The conceit of having the same actor reappear as his or her grandchild can be a bit confusing. (Wait, didn’t he get shot an hour ago?) but it serves well the playwright’s idea of family continuity in one place.
The central family is that sired by Michael Rowen (David Vegh) who comes to frontier Kentucky in 1775 from his native Ireland determined to get hold of a piece of land. He finds one, kills Indians and friends to keep it, and captures and rapes one Indian woman, Morning Star (the forceful Deborah Lazor) to start a family. Through two centuries his family, and his descendants (Ezekiel, Jed and Joshua, all played by Vegh) lose the land to speculators, regain it and lose it again to mining interests. At the play’s end Joshua, seventh generation on the land, stands on the family homestead, having reburied, unknowing, the body of the daughter his great-great-great-great-great grandfather exposed at birth (Michael Rowan wanted no girl children) and recognizes how the land itself has been raped and destroyed.
Others notable in the many faceted cast include Gregory Joseph Allen, who moves from the greasy land speculator of the 1840s to mine owner in five roles, Sarah Underwood in two touching roles, and Kyle Hall who ranges from Indian warrior 20th century miner.
The plays may not satisfy, but the production, directed by Trevor Bishop, is impressive in its effectiveness and simplicity. A plain wooden platform and a walkway, surrounded on three sides by the seats of the Armory, serves as everything from mountain meadow to Union Army steam launch. The design, by Staci Walters, is versatile and allows for plenty of action. Megan MacLean’s costumes are comfortable warn, perfect for the up-close action of these plays. Leah Austin lights the space with moody emphasis, and, save for a few lines lost in the cavernous stage space, everything is sharply heard. The cast serves as stage crew, removing and replacing simple furniture to cover scene changes.
A remarkable technical success, and filled with impressive young actors, still the “Kentucky Cycle” is less great literature than predictable soap opera, a pleasure to watch as long as you don’t think too hard about the rather obvious and clichéd message it transmits. The plays run in repertory through December 13. If you only handle one long evening of theater instead of two, the second half of the cycle is much more involving drama.
More reviews and features by John Farrell can be found at http://byjohnfarrell.typepad.com/