By Dave Barton
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American History XXX
Cal State Long Beach’s graduate theater program tackles the seldom-produced Kentucky Cycle
Times are tough in America, and getting tougher. Mortgages foreclosing. Banks going belly up. Immigrants pouring in over leaky borders. Cultures violently colliding. Wars, and rumors of war.
And that’s just in the first half of Robert Schenkkan’s blood-saturated epic, The Kentucky Cycle, a nine-play work that traces the tumultuous experience of three American families over 200 years on a small piece of land in Eastern Kentucky. Stark, hyper-violent and studded with ancient Greek-like atrocities, the play is wrapped around a vicious struggle for dominance between warring clans that makes the Hatfields and McCoys look like a church potluck.
Yet it’s also beautifully rendered, with soaring poetical passages and a rich, expressive language rooted in the vernacular of common Americans whose voices aren’t often captured in history textbooks. But though it won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize in drama, it’s rarely performed. It’s just too big and expensive: nearly 20 actors performing some 100 roles, and with two halves that run well over five hours combined, which are usually presented on different nights or with a long break between.
Other than a 2000 Fullerton College production, it hasn’t been done in Southern California (at least as far as these fingers can Google) since a 1992 staging at the Mark Taper Forum. Which makes this weekend’s opening of Kentucky Cycle at California Repertory, Cal State Long Beach’s graduate theater program, so noteworthy. And so appropriate.
“This definitely comes from the vision of (Cal Rep Artistic Director) Joanne Gordon,” says assistant director Lauren Morris. “She feels very strongly that theater should be informed by the political climate, and feels even more passionately about it right now since this is an election year. She really wanted to do a piece that has American history at its core, especially one with a theme that we’re doomed to repeat history if we’re not aware of it.”
The politics of The Kentucky Cycle are clear: The family at its center, the Rowens, is a microcosm of America. The greed, pride, honor and revenge that fuel its members are as woven into the fabric of Old Glory as its nobler threads of liberty and equality. Schenkkan is unflinching in his acknowledgement of the specters in America’s past (and present). Slavery, the effects of Manifest Destiny, environmental degradation in the pursuit of profit, and the creeping menaces of faceless corporations and equally faceless bureaucracies undermining individuals, families and communities are continually referenced.
But though the story and scope are massive, this production, directed by Trevor Biship, adheres to playwright Schenkkan’s request for minimalism. Its most ornate feature is Megan MacLean’s 60-piece costume design, which Morris calls “a symphony that really helps the play move. She’s done an extraordinary job.”
At 10 weeks, the rehearsal period is also extraordinary for a company like Cal Rep, which is accustomed to three-week rehearsals, Morris says.
“It has been a challenge to fight the fatigue and to keep focused. But that’s needed in order to truly look this thing in the face and to focus on the work instead of being overwhelmed.”
Vast historical scope is not common in American plays. Traditionally, most major American playwrights write small in order to shed light on The Bigger Picture (Think Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and All My Sons). But The Kentucky Cycle formed in the 1990s, a decade that saw huge plays as varied as Angels in America, Black Elk Speaks, Ragtime and The Grapes of Wrath produced.
Whether driven by identity politics, historical revisionism, a need for playwrights to weigh in at the end of the American Century, or a collective Kent Family Chronicles fetish, writers tackled lofty works, and professional theaters produced them.
For a while.
“The overall economic picture for non-profit theater had a great deal to do with” the decline of sweeping, historical dramas, says John Glore, associate artistic director at South Coast Repertory, which staged its own historical epic, Howard Korder’s The Hollow Lands, in 2000. Arts funding slowed to a trickle, and most theaters were forced to downsize productions. But Glore isn’t convinced epic plays would have continued even without the funding cutbacks.
“I think it was an anomalous upswing in the first place,” he says. “With the exception of Eugene O’Neil, big, epic plays have never been typical of American playwrights, and I think the success of both Angels in America and The Kentucky Cycle triggered a temporary interest in many playwrights’ minds to write their own. Which some did. But I’m not sure that would have sustained for a number of years. They’re just really expensive.”
But they’re also really, really necessary, especially in uncertain times like these. They remind us of the past, and, possibly, offer perspective on how to achieve a brighter future.