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Metaphor for America : Robert Schenkkan's 'Kentucky Cycle' is a 9-play, 6 1/2-hour saga of families caught up in Indian wars, land feuds and union clashes

February 02, 1992|ROBERT KOEHLER | Robert Koehler is a frequent contributor to Calendar. and

Robert Schenkkan seems to be a pack rat, judging by a glance of the study in his Van Nuys home. The room isn't just full of books and paper, but trinkets and bric-a-brac from floor to ceiling.

A closer look, though, reveals that what really surrounds Schenkkan in his workroom are icons and signs that point the way to the heart of the massive, nine-play, 6 1/2-hour theatrical saga that has consumed five years of his life.

On one wall hang swords and other war heirlooms of Schenkkan's grandfather. On a bookshelf is a framed, darkly ironic motto: "Forgive Your Enemies . . . but Don't Forget Their Names."

And adorning the wall behind Schenkkan's computer is a multicolored, patchwork quilt. Made by his friend, Los Angeles quilter Lulie Sabella, it depicts key images from Schenkkan's epic play, "The Kentucky Cycle," opening today at the Mark Taper Forum.

At the quilt's center is a mighty oak with branches arching to the sky above the land grabbed by the play's Rowen family from the Cherokee people in the Cumberland Plateau region of eastern Kentucky. Cyclically swirling around the oak are farmers working the land, the Civil War, violent feuds between Cumberland folk, mining operations tearing apart the hills and the rise of the United Mine Workers.

These signposts in the playwright's lair also point to the phrase that hovers over the "Cycle" like Damocles' sword, one that Schenkkan used as the original title of Play 1: "A Dark and Bloody Land."

It's a phrase that haunts any conversation about his play, especially when Schenkkan or his director, Warner Shook, insist that the biggest mistake anyone can make about "The Kentucky Cycle" is to assume that it's just about Kentucky from 1775 to 1975.

"This could just as easily be called 'The California Cycle,' " Shook suggests. "It's not about hillbillies. It's a reflection of the state of the union."

The "Cycle" does track--through the stories of the Irish-American Rowen and Talbert families and the African-American Biggs family--the blood-drenched history of Kentucky's Cumberlands: the ruthless Indian Wars, the land robberies by speculators, the spectacular feuds made infamous by the Hatfields vs. the McCoys, the takeover by mining companies leading to violent union clashes, union victories and defeats and the ecological destruction of the region.

But for Schenkkan, when the Cumberlands' violent past is placed alongside the dangerous streets of today's American cities, "it's peanuts. It's as if eastern Kentucky endured in an earlier time what we're experiencing now in L.A. or Chicago or New York. This is the quintessential American story.

"We need to think about why Eldridge Cleaver was right when he said, 'Violence is as American as apple pie.' Is our violent tendency something we're prepared to accept as the cost of doing business, as the price you pay for being an American? If, after profound thought and introspection, we as a society decide that it is, that's one thing. But if it's a case of the violence just being there with everybody in denial about it, well, that's something else."

Contrary to the suggestion that the "Cycle" is your basic sweeping family saga, theater's answer, say, to the TV miniseries, Schenkkan says frankly that he's serving up "revisionist history."

"But I think it's more accurate to say that the 'Cycle' is a re-examination of our core national mythology than to say it's a critique of the system. Systems come and go, but myths always inform. And if a society's myths are no longer functioning in a healthy way--and our American macho, frontier, laissez-faire myths are certainly used up, along with the land--then we have to ask ourselves, 'Why?' "

Schenkkan peppers his conversation with such Big Questions, which naturally stem from the show's narrative and historical enormity. Fittingly, it's also the Big Play of the regional theater season (its $125,000 grant from the Fund for New American Plays is the largest ever given by that endowment). An ensemble of 13 actors performs 72 roles in both two-night sequences and marathon one-day performances of the entire play. The demands imposed by the production at its summer 1991 world premiere at Seattle's Intiman Theatre nearly overwhelmed that modestly funded theater's technical facilities--and is pressing those at the Taper.

For its part, the Taper is proclaiming the show as "the centerpiece" of its 25th anniversary season. After Taper artistic director Gordon Davidson saw the Intiman production, he hurriedly added the "Cycle" to the season. Critics are expected to fly in from across the country for the opening. Although Taper managing director Charles Dillingham is not disclosing the theater's production budget for the "Cycle," he notes that the figure is "under $1 million." (The Intiman staging cost $700,000.)

Depending on critical and public response, the production may move--to Washington's Kennedy Center (which has a production option), to Broadway, perhaps to London.

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