Friday, November 16, 2012

Metropolitan Ensemble "Kentucky Cycle Pt 2" review by BobEvans

 Part II Continues Gritty Story of America 
Rating: 5

Kentucky Cycle Part II
Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre

"Come and listen to my story 'bout a man named Jed, a poor mountaineer barely kept his family fed, and then one day, he was shootin' for some food..." you know the rest. But in that story, the hills of Kentucky bubble up surface oil. Jed gets rich and moves on, but in The Kentucky Cycle, it's not oil, but coal, instead. And, instead of untold wealth, the mountaineers end up raped by big coal companies, their lands destroyed into a wasteland, and their devastated lives now controlled by outside sources. Instead of happiness and comedy, the Rowen family and neighbors face drama and devastation.

THE KENTUCKY CYCLE PART II picks up 20 years after the Civil War and does not lose a step in continuing the saga of the Rowen family and their evil as they carve out a life in a still-emerging America in the Kentucky hills.

The stupid arrogance of the Rowen family continues as the story of Jed faces the obstacles of a changing America at the start of the Industrial Revolution and the beginning of coal mining in the Kentucky foothills. The dirt, danger, and depth of grit in this chapter illustrates how the uneducated deal with new industries. Stupidity and bad decisions destroy the beauty of a virgin land by the beginnings of corporate America. Even with their maliciousness, the Rowen family lived in the Garden of Eden, unaware of the outside world. Once their Eden collapses, the new ruler, The mining company, quickly overwhelms them and forces them into submission. In this case, the serpent comes in the form of a story teller who takes the literature of the day (similar to Bret Harte and Mark Twain tales), uses it to court the friendship of dull hillbillies, and then temps them with forbidden fruit– in this case money and greed.

And like the Biblical adage, "The love of money is the root of all evil," the Rowen family succumbs to the temptation, sending their future into a downward spiral of never-ending devastation and heartbreak. Unlike Part 1 when the Rowens mostly dictate the rules, money becomes the boss. Money progressively enslaves the Rowen family and neighbors. Malice abounds, but in different ways. Expect each main character to possess dark overtones and undertones. The family strength continues, but outside forces overwhelm and control the Rowen fates.

Still a male dominant show with few female characters, the women in Part II move the story along and provide the strength to balance the dark story line of the menfolk. Even with smaller roles, the three main female performers in Part II demonstrate they are no less important than the males they support. Hanna Freeman as young Mary Ann, Karen Paisley as adult Mary Ann, Manon Halliburton as Mother Jones and Margaret Rowen turn in substantive, solid performance, confined mostly to Act I.

The Kentucky Cycle Part I involved five one-act plays that introduce the characters and set the tone for each subsequent chapter in the Rowen lives. Part I ends with the Civil War and covers the ruthlessness of William Quantrill who burned and massacred civilians in Lawrence, KS. This alone should draw Jayhawkers to see the show and get a glimpse of Quantrill. The Kentucky Cycle Part II further develops the story with four more one-act plays that advances the story. Expect to sit for a long time with each part. The show runs three hours for each part. And, the show continues to present Part I even after Part II debuted Nov. 9. On two occasions, viewers can make a day of theater and see Part I in the afternoon, take a leisurely dinner break, and return for Part II. But be prepared. That requires a full day of viewing.

The Kentucky Cycle Part II begins with its first chapter, "Tall Tales (1885)." The evening opens with a new character JT Wells, portrayed by Michael McIntire, bursts onto the mountain and mesmerizes young Mary Ann Rowen. He entertains her family with his stories and upsets her uneducated, hot-headed, boyfriend Tommy (convincingly performed by Kyle Dyck). TJ presents himself as a story-teller, but evolves into a snake-oil salesman who temps the Kentucky hillbillies with promises of minuscule amounts of money for the mineral rights to their land. He promises that their lush and beautiful Garden of Eden will endure with only minor changes. Money lures the greedy, short-sighted mountain menfolk into believing they are selling rocks for cash. They also swallow that for $1 acre mountain folk are raping the big company that buys mineral rights. In actuality, the families sell millions of dollars of coal for a measly dollar per acre–or less. The new buzzword, "mineral rights" falls on deaf ears, and simple minds. The cash entices the Rowens and others to relinquish their land to a mining operation and "The Company Store." (Tennessee Ernie Ford created an early 1950s hit with "16 Tons" that mirrors this story and predicament.)

The next chapter, "Fire in the Hole (1920)" finds a grown Tommy, now Bob Paisley fighting to survive and provide for Mary Ann and their only remaining son of five. Enter the character of Joshua Rowen Jackson played by the youngest cast member, Whittaker Hoar, who delivers in an inspiring performance. He develops from a sickly child into a young mine worker and shows the desperation the Rowen family faced in maintaining a meager lifestyle. Also, enter Scott Roady as Abe Steinman, a Jewish union organizer with a plan to assist the families in their survival struggle against the mining companies and the company's lack of feeling or safety for the workers. In this chapter examine the fantastic interactions between Roady and Paisley with other cast. Roady especially moves from kind-hearted to angry organizer and back with ease. His character draws viewers into a full-bodied performance. Scenes with Paisley bring power to the piece while they build their relationship from cold/bitter, to strength through usefulness. Each uses the other to further his fortunes.

Intermission brings a well needed respite for viewers because in its first preview performance, Act I ran just shy of two hours. The acting keeps the audience involved and actors change characters. Reviewing specific characters presents problems. Watch the entire evening for inspired performances by Scott Cordes and Bob Paisley whose on-stage time continues throughout Part II. Be amazed as they transition from character to character and delve deeper into each persona they portray. Roady, confined to Act I, delivers an invigorated portrayal of the outsider/union organizer.

After Intermission, "Which Side Are You On? (1954)" demonstrates that the Rowen family again survived from transitional times into organized union labor; however, problems continue with the mining company. When a Rowen returns from the Korean War and needs work, he begins as a white collar worker for the mining company after his father has risen from mine worker to labor union steward and negotiator. Cordes now takes on the role of the mature Rowen dealing with the corrupt mine boss, now portrayed by Paisley. Dirty deals, under- table offers and counteroffers show the ugly side of negotiations and possible impending wildcat strikes. Add to this the idea that cutting corners raises profits while risking the safety of miners. Several accidents do not change the story or motivation of the Company.

Finally, "The War on Poverty (1975)" advances the story to the modern time. More death, destruction, and disaster strike the family as the Company forces compliance and corruption claims lives. Again Cordes and Paisley stand apart and command the stage with their presence. The Kentucky Cycle comes full circle when the final one-act returns the audience to the original homestead of the first Rowen and Morning Star began the Rowen dynasty. The end only completes the shattered, fragmented lives lost. Only those who have seen Part I will fully grasp the conclusion.

For audiences who enjoy fantastic acting and a story- driven plot, The Kentucky Cycle provides a vehicle for just that. The most talented cast in the metro area perform this award-winning play. Seldom do audiences see a performance with a large cast where every actor matches the roles portrayed. In this case the cast plays as many as 5-10 parts as each chapter brings so many changes. An actor with a major part in one chapter may only have a line or two in the next, but still the performance remains dead on. Audiences will not see one weak performance in any segment of the show. Part I and Part II blend well and match in intensity and drama.

Let it be known that these evenings of theatre are not "enjoyable" in the normal sense. The intense Kentucky Cycle shocks and wears on the audience. The audience is fully engaged, but probably would not use the word, "enjoyable" to describe the show. Dramatic, moving, touching, aggravating, compelling, life-like and other such terms would better describe this theatre outing.

And the super-focused, talented cast includes: Scott Cordes, Coleman Crenshaw, Kyle Dyck, Jordan Fox, Jessica Franz, Hannah Freeman, Christopher Gleeson, Bethany Hall, Manon Halliburton, Gregory Hayden, Whittaker Hoar, Shawn Hollinger, Donovan Kidd, Greg Lane, Matt Leonard, Michael McIntire, Liaia McKenzie, Sherri Roulette-Mosely, Elijah Murray, Bob Paisley, Rob Pagenkopf, James Paisley Bill Pelletier, Andy Penn, Chris Roady, Elissa Schrader, Alan Tilson, Bradley Turner, and Wil Andrews-Weiss.

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