Friday, October 19, 2007

The Kentucky Cycle

The Kentucky Cycle was "in development" at Sundance in 1990, when I was "in development" there with my play set in a Boston abortion clinic, "Under Siege" (at that point titled "Choices"). I was so impressed by the Cycle that I took the dawn bus to NYC to see both parts, matinee and evening, and staggered onto the wee hours red eye bus to ride back home. That was a good production, a memorable one-- but I thought at the time that the play was actually more moving in the bare-bones intimacy of the well-rehearsed reading it got at Sundance than in the elaborate proscenium staging it got on Broadway. I was very much looking forward to seeing it again staged by Zeitgeist/Way Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts

Carolyn Clay gave it a rave in the Boston Phoenix

"Whitewash has floated like a soap scum on the bloodbath of America’s past as told in the history books. Robert Schenkkan’s THE KENTUCKY CYCLE blows the skim off the water, offering 200 years of Appalachian “progress” — from lawlessness to vengefulness to Norma Rae. This seven-hour, nine-play saga, which begins in 1775 on a precious piece of Eastern Kentucky ground that will be strip-mined before all is done, premiered in Seattle in 1991 and in 1992 became the first stage work to win the Pulitzer Prize before being produced in New York — which, of course, propelled it to Broadway, where it ran for a month. The Kentucky Cycle may be just too expensive and unwieldy for commercial production, requiring as it does two three-and-a-half-hour sit-downs and 20-some actors deployed in 120 speaking roles. (It probably didn’t help that the cycle came to fruition at the same time as Angels in America.)"

[Don't I know! It was hard for the rest of us at Sundance in 1990 to get any attention at all, with Angels there to blow us away! And Kushner got the epic sweep staged with a more economical cast, half the size of Kentucky's, or my own female epic's -- GLH).

CLAY again: "Perhaps the only sort of theater that could, with any thought toward fiscal prudence, take a shot at Schenkkan’s epic would be a non-Equity troupe whose leader is insane enough to try. Enter David J. Miller, honcho of two-time Elliot Norton Award–winning Zeitgeist Stage Company, which teams with Way Theatre Artists to present an area premiere of The Kentucky Cycle (at the Boston Center for the Arts through November 17) that is a sweeping, small-scale triumph..."

"Schenkkan’s cycle offers, along with its large doses of history and melodrama, flights of poetry and a keen sense of place. What Zeitgeist adds, in this vigorous chamber staging, is human scale. The saga unfolds in the tiny BCA Black Box on and between two small stages.....As he proved with Stuff Happens, the David Hare drama ... Miller is adept at deploying his talented non-professionals — who here include two refreshingly natural kids, Matthew Scott Robinson and Jacob Rosenbaum. The actors bounce among roles without, for the most part, falling into delineating caricature. Even the worst of the characters is pitiable. Callous dynasty maker Michael Rowen is imbued by Michael Steven Costello with a demonic energy that’s irresistible. Christine Power brings a lyrical fierceness to reluctant union matriarch Mary Anne Rowen. Peter Brown is effective as both a fire-and-brimstone preacher whose Bible is a retribution manual and a 20th-century United Mine Workers leader squeezed into a compromise that proves both fatal and personal. There are robust turns, too, by Bill Bruce, Amanda Good Hennessey, and Jonathan Orsini. And the whole cast is to be admired for getting its collective arms around this Herculean effort and remembering from moment to moment just where in the course of its all-too-human events they are."

I went to see part #1 with June Lewin last night, and we're going to pt #2 tonight.
The cast is uneven, but unified as an ensemble, those who are good as individual characters are astonishingly good! The spirit is fierce and totally committed, and what I found melodramatic in 1990 seems spot on after nearly 2 more decades of exposure to American greed and authoritarian violence. Pity and terror; pity and terror.

Here's an excerpt from a Jane Smiley essay in Slate c. 2004 explaining what Schekkan shows:

"Ignorance and bloodlust have a long tradition in the United States, especially in the red states. There used to be a kind of hand-to-hand fight on the frontier called a "knock-down-drag-out," where any kind of gouging, biting, or maiming was considered fair. The ancestors of today's red-state voters used to stand around cheering and betting on these fights. When the forces of red and blue encountered one another head-on for the first time in Kansas Territory in 1856, the red forces from Missouri, who had been coveting Indian land across the Missouri River since 1820, entered Kansas and stole the territorial election. The red news media of the day made a practice of inflammatory lying—declaring that the blue folks had shot and killed red folks whom everyone knew were walking around. The worst civilian massacre in American history took place in Lawrence, Kan., in 1863—Quantrill's raid. The red forces, known then as the slave-power, pulled between 150 and 200 unarmed men from their beds on a Sunday morning and slaughtered them, many in front of their wives and children.* The error that progressives have consistently committed over the years is to underestimate the vitality of ignorance in America. Listen to what the red state citizens say about themselves, the songs they write, and the sermons they flock to. They know who they are—they are full of original sin and they have a taste for violence. The blue state citizens make the Rousseauvian mistake of thinking humans are essentially good, and so they never realize when they are about to be slugged from behind.

Here is how ignorance works: First, they put the fear of God into you—if you don't believe in the literal word of the Bible, you will burn in hell. Of course, the literal word of the Bible is tremendously contradictory, and so you must abdicate all critical thinking, and accept a simple but logical system of belief that is dangerous to question. A corollary to this point is that they make sure you understand that Satan resides in the toils and snares of complex thought and so it is best not try it.

Next, they tell you that you are the best of a bad lot (humans, that is) and that as bad as you are, if you stick with them, you are among the chosen. This is flattering and reassuring, and also encourages you to imagine the terrible fates of those you envy and resent. American politicians ALWAYS operate by a similar sort of flattery, and so Americans are never induced to question themselves. That's what happened to Jimmy Carter—he asked Americans to take responsibility for their profligate ways, and promptly lost to Ronald Reagan, who told them once again that they could do anything they wanted. The history of the last four years shows that red state types, above all, do not want to be told what to do—they prefer to be ignorant. As a result, they are virtually unteachable.

Third, and most important, when life grows difficult or fearsome, they (politicians, preachers, pundits) encourage you to cling to your ignorance with even more fervor. But by this time you don't need much encouragement—you've put all your eggs into the ignorance basket, and really, some kind of miraculous fruition (preferably accompanied by the torment of your enemies, and the ignorant always have plenty of enemies) is your only hope. If you are sufficiently ignorant, you won't even know how dangerous your policies are until they have destroyed you, and then you can always blame others."--JSmiley

In linking Schekkan's name to his Wikipedia reference I discovered that we share the same birthday, March 19th, and that he is an actor whose work I've seen on TV in Star Trek TNG. I didn't recognize him when I met him at Sundance-- but I did like him on sight.....GLH, Ares cusp Piscean.

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