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All of 'Kentucky' in a Black Box

Fitting an epic play into a tiny theater

When the actors in "The Kentucky Cycle" finish rehearsal warm-ups in the basement of a South End church, director David Miller announces, "OK, everybody in the dressing room." The cast of 23 huddles in a tight cluster in the corner of the rehearsal room and awaits instructions.

"Have you seen how small the dressing room is in the Black Box Theatre?" assistant director Julie Levene explains later. "They need to get used to being close together and being in the right order for their next entrance."

Levene's company, Way Theatre Artists, is producing "The Kentucky Cycle" with Miller's Zeitgeist Stage Company starting Saturday. And for this production, necessity is the mother of invention.

The corner of the church basement serves as a substitute for the Black Box's dressing room, where the cast will wait when they're not onstage. Based at the Boston Center for the Arts, the theater, which seats 90, has no backstage or wing space where actors normally wait for their cues, so the dressing room will be their gathering place.

At this point in the rehearsal process, the two directors have done scene work, blocking, fight choreography, and singing rehearsals (the ensemble includes six actor-musicians). Now, "it's about traffic patterns," says Miller.

"When you're moving this many people on and off a small stage, you need to organize the lineup so that no one crashes into anyone else and everyone gets to where they need to be," he explains.

Organizing the company for this production has been about much more than entrances and exits, however. Robert Schenkkan's Pulitzer prize-winning epic spans 200 years and seven generations of three families living in eastern Kentucky.

Over the course of the nine plays (presented in two, three-hour parts), the nearly two dozen actors play over 100 roles in a story that chronicles a region's violent history, from the early settlers to the coal mining battles of today.

Capturing such a sweeping story on such a small stage seems overly ambitious for two "fringe" companies, but playwright Schenkkan says "The Kentucky Cycle" is produced a few times each year, mostly by smaller theaters. The show earned the Pulitzer after its world premiere at Seattle's Intiman Theatre in 1992, before a short-lived run on Broadway in 1993.

"I think the devil is not so much in the details of creating this world in any realistic way, but in the people, and what they're experiencing on an honest, emotional level," Schenkkan says by phone from his Seattle home. "Whether the costumes are realistic or suggestive isn't as important as the emotional truth. If you bring that to the stage, then everything else will fall into place."

Miller says he originally envisioned the plays in the BCA's comparatively spacious Cyclorama, but the budget was beyond him. Still, he says, "I found it such page-turning theater, I had to produce it. When I first read it, I was supposed to be making dinner, and my friend kept saying, 'When will dinner be ready?' and I said, 'Two more plays' because I couldn't put it down. It's got Greek themes, Shakespearean themes, sons continuing the sins of their fathers, an eye for an eye, mothers getting revenge on their children. It's about primal survival instincts."

Still, with such a big project to manage, Miller turned to Levene, who had been his dramaturge for Zeitgeist's production of "Sacred Hearts" earlier this year and asked if her company, with just one production under its belt, would consider joining him for the adventure.

Besides helping to defray the cost of such a large production, Levene was also an important part of managing the many logistical pieces of this multiplay production.

"I read the play from an actor's point of view," Levene says, "and I was struck by how action-packed it is, how passionate these people are. What both Zeitgeist and Way Theatre do is present big theatrical stories in intimate spaces. The feedback we got on 'Dancing at Lughnasa' [her theatre's inaugural production] was that it was so immediate it felt like a new play."

For Schenkkan, it was the immediacy of his personal experience in eastern Kentucky that sparked the stories in the first place.

"I tagged along with a pediatric doctor who was returning to the area after a long absence to see what remained of the outreach programs he'd started years before," Schenkkan says. "It was one of those spur-of-the-moment decisions whose consequences you can't begin to measure. When we drove into the Cumberland Plateau and out into the hollers, the poverty and deprivation was mind-boggling. Then we stayed with people who were running a small coal mining operation that was very successful. The two groups of people weren't that far apart geographically, but the economic divide was stunning. I was so outraged by the disparity, I felt I had to write about it."

For Miller, the power of the plays comes from Schenkkan's ability to interweave the stories so dramatically. "At the same time you're following these very personal stories, he brings in historical figures, including William Clarke Quantrill [a brutal Confederate captain], and Mother Jones, who was active in union organizing," he says. "Every day has life and death consequences. I don't want to give anything away, but by the end of the third play, you wonder, 'What are these people capable of?' "

Zeitgeist has won several awards for its productions, including the politically provocative "Stuff Happens" and "Blue/Orange," but Miller says the political aspect of the play is only one part of what attracted him to the script.

"It's been strange to feel the contemporary relevance in this play," says Miller. "While we were working on the play that focuses on union organizing in the coal mines, Wal-Mart's efforts to discourage unions was in the news. While we were working on a scene about a mine tragedy, the Utah mining disaster happened. But I'm attracted to plays that are not easily categorized," he says. "I like stories that turn on a dime; ones that start out really funny, and then turn deadly. When we did our first run through of 'The Kentucky Cycle,' we got a lot of laughs, which means the actors found the full-bodied humans behind the stories."

What about audience reluctance to stay with a play that takes two three-hour sittings?

"People should just plan to come for the first half of the first part," Miller promises. "There's such a cliffhanger there, you'll be hooked and have to stay through to the end."

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