Theater is really pretty simple business.
All you need are more than 25 actors, between 150 and 200 costumes, an armory of functioning stunt guns, a director who thinks like a field marshal — and before you know it, you’re in business.
Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, a midtown theater company that’s made a difference despite limited resources, is undertaking its most ambitious production to date: “The Kentucky Cycle,” Robert Schenkkan’s two-part, six-hour epic spanning 200 years of strife, violence and tragedy on the Cumberland Plateau.
The play was first seen at the respected Intiman Theatre in Seattle, then staged at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and eventually mounted on Broadway. Between Seattle and the Big Apple it claimed the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, becoming the first play to win a Pulitzer before being produced in New York.
Karen Paisley, the MET’s artistic director, has never seen “The Kentucky Cycle,” but she’s read it and reread it countless times. Eventually she decided the only way she’d ever see it was to stage it herself.
“I waited a long time for someone to do it so I could take it off my bucket list,” Paisley said.
“The Kentucky Cycle” consists of nine one-act plays. The first is set in 1775, the last in 1975. What connects them is a specific piece of land, a homestead acquired in an act of violence. It changes hands more than once through deceit and treachery and is eventually ecologically raped by coal companies.
It also tells the stories of three families — the Rowens, descended from an Irish immigrant patriarch; the Talberts, locked in a cycle of murder and revenge with the Rowens; and the Biggs, an African-American family descended from slaves. A key character early in the saga is Morning Star, a Cherokee whom patriarch Michael Rowen kidnaps, rapes and takes as a wife; from them the Rowen clan descends.
Some characters first appear as young people and reappear in old age. The huge cast of the MET production is anchored by Equity actors Scott Cordes and Manon Halliburton. It features notable young performers, including Matt Leonard, Jessica Franz, Coleman Crenshaw, Kyle Dyck and Chris Roady. Veteran performers Alan Tilson and Sherri Roulette-Mosley are on hand, as is the Paisley family: Karen Paisley, husband Bob Paisley and son James Paisley all appear onstage.
Performances of Part 1 begin tonight. Part 2 opens Nov. 8. Both will be performed in repertory through Dec. 2, and on certain days theatergoers will be able to see the entire work — about six hours of viewing time — in one day.
“This is probably the most audacious project anybody’s doing,” Karen Paisley said. “But in terms of cast size, this isn’t particularly intimidating for me. We’ve done plays this large before and done them successfully. But we’ve never done a play with this many guns in it. But I think if we waited until everything was easy, nothing might ever happen. Or we’d never begin. So you kind of have to go for it on faith.”
Schenkkan said “The Kentucky Cycle” continues to be frequently staged by universities and colleges, and that professional productions are almost always undertaken by small theater companies.
“I think in certain ways, perhaps large institutions are a little intimidated by the size and they get a little too wrapped up in how we can make this work for subscribers,” Schenkkan said. “But the smaller theaters tend to be a little bit more adventuresome and for them it’s really a 100 percent commitment to the fact that this play speaks to them and they want to tell this story.”
Whether the play is seen in a large house or an intimate space, the show continues to provide an unusual viewing experience.
“Invariably it pays off,” Schenkkan said. “Audiences love this kind of total immersive experience. You just don’t have anything like this. It’s so rare — the complexity of the story unfolding over time, these three families and their various connections, which we the audience are able to follow in God’s seat, while the characters remain all too often ignorant of their past and how their past is living through the present.”
Schenkkan said the origins of the play can be traced to the early 1980s, when he was working as an actor at the Actors Theatre of Louisville. One weekend an acquaintance invited Schenkkan to accompany him on a short driving trip through eastern Kentucky. He was struck by, among other things, the close proximity of wealth and abject poverty.
“It was a very powerful and eye-opening trip, just a couple of days’ duration, and made me very curious about the region,” he said.
Later he discovered a book by Harry Caudill, “Night Comes to the Cumberlands,” a sociological history of the area.
“It was a bracingly invigorating look at the history of the Cumberland Plateau,” Schenkkan said. “The story that he tells about the economic and sociological forces at work in the Cumberlands over the course of 200 years I thought was just so inherently theatrical, and so compelling, that I thought it might have a stage equivalent.”
The first play in the cycle Schenkkan wrote was “Tall Tales,” set in 1885, which eventually became the sixth play in the chronology and opens Part 2. It depicts a fast-talking, long-winded point man for the coal industry sent into the mountains to secure the mineral rights from gullible farmers.
It was inspired by a section of Caudill’s book, and the idea that a con artist could use storytelling as a way to seduce unsuspecting landowners struck Schenkkan as naturally theatrical.
After finishing the play, Schenkkan said it felt incomplete. What was this family’s history? What was its future? But he really didn’t envision writing a six-hour play.
“Not at the beginning,” he said. “I thought maybe three plays — something tidy, a triptych with a beginning, middle and end. But the further I got into it, the more I thought, ‘Well, this doesn’t make sense.’ So pretty soon I was sitting down and beginning to block out the broad outline of what a more complete approach to this might entail. And I was very excited about the notion of storytelling, the evolution of events into history, and history into folk tale and folk tale into mythology.”
Schenkkan spent years writing the nine plays, and the complete work was developed at regional theaters across the country.
“I realized that thematically the play had grown very ambitious,” he said. “But I just told myself that each story requires exactly the amount of time it takes to tell it. Some stories are short and some are long. And this happened to be a very big, ambitious story, and it took awhile to tell it. I knew it would be a challenge and I told myself to push on and write it, and all I needed was one person to say yes to it. And eventually that one person was Liz Huddle, the artistic director of the Intiman Theatre in Seattle.”
In its epic depiction of land-grabbing, despoiling, exploitation and untrammeled corporate greed, “The Kentucky Cycle” does project a haves-versus-the-have-nots political sentiment. Schenkkan said it was unfortunate that in that regard the play remains painfully relevant.
“I think the issues in the play (have) grown in importance as the divide in the country in terms of economic class has increased substantially,” he said. “We see the same drumbeat of antagonism and animosity against working-class people and, indeed, the middle class — and a tendency to disparage those less fortunate as simply being lazy or not sufficiently motivated.
“A certain presidential candidate was discovered saying in private that 47 percent of the country was not going to support him because they’re lazy. Sadly, this is an attitude that is all too prevalent.”
Schenkkan said that HBO bought the rights to “The Kentucky Cycle” in the early ’90s. He wrote a three-part screenplay for a miniseries, and Kevin Costner had agreed to direct and perform in the project. Then Costner got busy with other films and eventually they parted company. Schenkkan said he was confident that we would eventually see a filmed version of “The Kentucky Cycle,” but the delays have been a source of immense frustration.
Schenkkan wrote and produced four episodes of another HBO miniseries, “The Pacific,” which depicted World War II. And his most recent play, “All the Way,” which dramatizes the first year of Lyndon Baines Johnson’s presidency, received its world premiere in July at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and has sparked the interest of a number of theaters around the country.
Johnson, he said, “by any standard fits the metric of a Shakespearean-type character — a big man physically, a big man in his appetites, a big man in his virtues and his flaws. The play is really a meditation on American politics. And, boy, does it feel relevant these days.”
And “All the Way” is just the first of two full-length plays.
“In fact, I’m talking to you today from the MacDowell colony in New Hampshire, where I’m in residence writing Part 2 of that play,” he said. “So 21 years after ‘Kentucky Cycle,’ I’m back to epic theater.”