‘The Kentucky Cycle’ is a dark portrait of murder, revenge and land-grabbing in America’s past

10/29/2012 11:03 AM

05/16/2014 8:07 PM

I’d waited a long time – much too long, really – for a Kansas City theater company to stage Robert Schenkkan’s tragic historical epic, “The Kentucky Cycle.”

The wait is over, thanks to the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, which is tackling the monumental work and dishing it up to audiences in the intimate confines of the MET. The results are impressive, even if the Sunday matinee looked a little rough around the edges.

Schenkkan’s play spans the years 1775 to 1975 while focusing on a homestead in eastern Kentucky and the families who fight each other for possession – against the Cherokee, against each other and, eventually, against the coal companies. Schenkkan divided the work, which claimed the 1992 Pulitzer Prize, into two parts. Each runs about three hours.

Part 1, which began performances last weekend, concludes at the end of the Civil War. There’s no denying the work’s power. Plays of this scope are rare in the theater. The story moves constantly, sometimes with the speed of a freight train.

Viewers can legitimately criticize the piece for melodramatic plotting and character transformations that happen with breathtaking swiftness. But if you take the long view, you’ll see a compelling show that grabs you by the lapels and forces you to watch and think. This is a play that simply will not be denied.

Director Karen Paisley stages the show on a long plank floor with a platform at one end and seating areas on either side. Projections appear on a screen above the platform, providing the title and date of each episode and sometimes translations of Cherokee dialogue.

She’s assembled some 30 actors (including Paisley, who plays a supporting role in the final section of Part 1), a number you’re not likely to see on any stage in Kansas City outside the Lyric Opera.

As written and directed, each sequence demands dominant performances from specific actors. In the first two episodes that job falls to Matt Leonard, who plays Michael Rowen, an Irish indentured servant and practiced killer. Leonard is a riveting presence, delivering an assured and remarkably nuanced performance as a man willing to do anything for a piece of land.

In the opening sequence, “Masters of the Trade,” set in 1775, we see him murder a Scottish gun-runner, kill a young accomplice and betray a band of Cherokee with whom he’s ostensibly trading. In “The Courtship of Morning Star,” set in the following year, he kidnaps a Cherokee woman (Manon Halliburton) to take as his wife, but it’s less courtship than enslavement.

In “The Homecoming” the action moves to 1792. Michael is now played by the grizzled Scott Cordes and Leonard assumes the role of Patrick, the son of Michael and Morning Star. Cordes, as we’ve come to expect, gives us an expansive performance that the intimate confines of the MET can barely contain. He enters in a blustering mode, returning from a trip to Louisville with a slave, Sallie (Sherri Roulette-Mosley), with whom he plans to produce slave offspring to work his land.

But the sequence is dominated by Halliburton as the now-middle-aged Morning Star. Her performance as an embittered mother who wants to make sure her son gets his rightful inheritance is simply electrifying. Morning Star sees a chance for her own happiness if Michael would obligingly drop dead but ultimately she gets more than she bargained for.

One of the fatalities in this sequence is Joseph Talbert (Bob Paisley), the father of Patrick’s future wife Rebecca (Jessica Franz), and the killing sets in motion a blood feud between the Talberts and Rowens that will span generations.

By 1819, the year of “The Ties That Bind,” Patrick (now played by Cordes) has expanded his land holdings but has gone bankrupt. He has two sons Zack and Zeke (Kyle Dyck and Wil Andrews-Weiss) and Sallie has a son named Jessie (Sean Hollinger). Most of the scene depicts a court hearing called by a visiting judge to satisfy the demands of Jeremiah Talbert (Coleman Crenshaw), who has bought up Patrick’s loans from the failed Bank of Kentucky.

The result is the abject subordination of Patrick, who is reduced from landowner to sharecropper in the course of thirty minutes. Zack, disgusted that his father would sell Sallie and Jessie to help pay his debts, leaves home. Zeke stays and tells his broken father that they need to be patient, because one day they and the Talberts will “settle up.”

The promised is fulfilled in “God’s Great Supper,” when Jed Rowen (Jordan Fox), Zeke’s son, executes a plan for revenge at the outbreak of war in 1861. He accompanies Richard Talbert (Bob Paisley) to fight the Yankees and looks for the time and place to “settle up.” That he does.

There are moments when too much is demanded of the audience’s imaginative powers, such as a sequence on a ferry in which the river is represented only by sound effects of waves splashing against the craft. Director Paisley strives for a balance between imagined walls and trees and literal realism, including real gunfire and bloody wounds. For the most part, this approach works.

Some of the smaller performances stand out. Andy Penn as Taskwan, the leader of the Cherokee band, is impressive – as is the handling of the translated Cherokee dialogue. Bill Pelletier as Judge Goddard delivers a memorable performance, hammy but thoughtful. Roulette-Mosley plays her only speech for all its worth and Chris Roady is effective as the gun-runner Earl Tod. Fox, an actor I’ve never seen before, commands the stage as Jed.

The MET has a history of tackling material that may be just beyond its artistic capabilities and this show gets pretty loose-jointed at times. Nonetheless, it’s an achievement. And it represents a level artistic ambition other theaters would do well to emulate.

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