The time commitment required to see all of The Kentucky Cycle shouldn't deter area theatergoers from sampling Robert Schenkkan's nine-play, six-hour epic (the first half, which includes five of the short plays, opened a few days ahead of Part Two, which will be reviewed in this space next week). The sprawling saga, now in its regional premiere at the Denver Civic Theatre by Hunger Artists Ensemble Theatre, covers two centuries of American history as experienced by seven generations of three Kentucky families. Somewhat, but not always predictably, the work has the same soap opera-ish appeal that propels most television miniseries: brother turns on brother, fratricide tears apart families and, like all epic dramas, the overwhelming desire for revenge is omnipresent.
Although the Pulitzer Prize-winning play is a tad turgid, audience members will likely appreciate how swiftly three hours can pass when the stories being told are staged and enacted with economy, passion and clarity.
In fact, director Jeremy Cole's choice to imbue Part One with an air of exposed theatricality heightens and formalizes an evening that could easily degenerate into a Roots-length version of the old Daniel Boone television series. An early reference to the fort-like settlement of Boonesboro notwithstanding, however, Dan'l, Cincinnatus and their toothless cohorts don't suddenly emerge from the spooky mist toting long rifles, musty pelts and pewter mugs. Instead, we're methodically, yet engagingly, introduced to the various patriarchs and matriarchs whose actions (cloaked by, yes, a spooky mist) precipitate a generations-long battle for supremacy over the life-giving landscape.
The Kentucky Cycle (Part One)
presented by Hunger Artists Ensemble Theatre
Denver Civic Theatre, 721 Santa Fe Drive
Through September 16
That struggle is evident from the beginning moments of Master of the Trade, a prologue-like play that details the 1775 meeting between leaders of the Cherokee tribe and Michael Rowen, an Irish immigrant looking to grab some virgin Kentucky land (as well as a similarly undefiled squaw). Despite the fact that his thick, though accurate, brogue prevents the audience from comprehending his many pronouncements, actor Christopher Leo's swaggering portrait of the bellicose Michael nicely conveys the sense of fierce territorialism that sustains -- and sometimes curses -- succeeding generations of Rowens. The first play also establishes Part One's significant trends: Each of its five plays has a distinct tone and style, and the whole cycle is advanced not by the force of distant external events, but through the relationships that develop between several recurring characters.
And nowhere is the latter idea more prevalent than in The Courtship of Morning Star, which chronicles Michael's vicious treatment of his Cherokee bride, and The Homecoming, which touches on his fractious relationship with his son Patrick. Both mini-dramas are marked by actress Lori Hansen's marvelously controlled turn as Morning Star. As another performer kneels by the side of a rustic bed and simulates the sounds attendant to childbirth, Hansen tells the story of Patrick's arrival through suggestive movement and lyrical speech. Later, Hansen demonstrates that Morning Star is capable of more than saintly forbearance, turning the tables in a manner that winds up casting a pall over her entire family.
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Or so it seems after intermission, when Ties That Bind unfolds. Now moderately well-to-do (by frontier standards, that is), the next generation of Rowens -- refined in a nouveau-riche sort of way that hints at clan-destroying arrogance -- is faced with legal action, brought by a fellow known only as Jeremiah, that threatens to lay waste to their hard-won independence. The play proves a riveting, suspenseful chapter, well acted by the somewhat larger cast, which further advances the tale by ending with a clever twist.
The fateful history's tone shifts once more -- and its performing ranks swell to include nearly all of the actors in the preceding plays -- with the advent of God's Great Supper, the final component of Part One. This time around, the drama takes place in the dreams and memories of Jed Rowen, a young man caught between the demands of family loyalty and the oppression of age-old grudges. Actor Augustus Truhn confidently guides us through a string of events that conflate his family's code of revenge and the Civil War's brother-against-brother conflicts. He's aided by several strong supporting portrayals, most notably Dane Torbenson's priggish cavalry officer, David Harms's vengeful reverend and David Loda's frenetic neighbor boy.
Kevin Stephens and director Cole provide a spare, platform-and-burlap setting in which noble emotions find a place alongside their ignoble cousins, lighting designers Steven J. Deidel and Anna R. Kaltenbach bathe the stage with an evocative array of color and shadow, and the costumes -- save for several pairs of modern-looking trousers that scream "Daniel Boone was a Dockers man, a real Dockers man!" -- are effectively coordinated by a team of four company members. Above all, though, Cole and company triumph where it matters most: uncovering each play's unique flavor, each person's particular humanity and each time period's overriding sweep -- all while remaining true to a story that, in the end, says more about our national character than any of us might care to admit.