What's Wrong With Melodrama?
When Warner Crocker was hired as artistic director of Pegasus Players this past January, he set out to mount The Kentucky Cycle, perhaps the most ambitious project in the company's 18-year history. Comprising nine playlets lasting a total of six hours and spanning 200 years of often violent Kentucky history, Robert Schenkkan's epic work is a massive undertaking for any theater. In 1992 it became the first play to win a Pulitzer prize without having been presented in New York, yet it disappeared soon after its Broadway debut. Crocker's revival has been viewed as a major gamble, and now observers on the local theater scene are wondering if his bravado will pay off.
Some Chicago critics have labeled the play a shameless melodrama, but all have remarked favorably on the quality and power of the production. Reader critic Albert Williams described the script as a "heavy-handed...PC potboiler...bogged down by schematic propagandizing and unsubtle characterization," yet he found Crocker's staging to be "impressively acted and beautifully designed...making the production well worth seeing." Others gave less qualified praise. The Sun-Times's Hedy Weiss called the show "one of those events that really define Chicago theater."
Even with this critical recognition, Crocker has discovered how difficult it is to sell a lengthy, thoughtful, and frequently unpleasant drama. "Some people have complained that The Kentucky Cycle is a depressing work," he says. A modest advertising campaign began last week to take advantage of some of the favorable reviews, but ticket sales have still been slow. The play is facing stiff competition from major theatrical events like Steppenwolf's Slaughterhouse-Five as well as from a slew of audience-friendly fluff, including Randy Newman's Faust at the Goodman, Gentlemen Prefer Bonds at the Apollo, The Male Intellect (An Oxymoron) at the Mercury, Thank You, Jeeves at the Ivanhoe, and Steve Martin's Picasso at the Lapin Agile at the Briar Street.
Though Pulitzers often bring rewards at the box office, Schenkkan's play didn't arrive here riding the huge wave of hype that accompanied other prizewinners, like Tony Kushner's Angels in America. Attempts to stir up advance stories met with no success. "I thought it was going to be a piece of cake because of the Pulitzer, but it was murder," says the play's publicist, Michelle Madden. "The papers didn't want to deal with it."
Crocker says he first put in a bid to produce The Kentucky Cycle because "I was very much interested in the challenge of the piece." He grew up in Virginia on the other side of the Appalachian Mountains from where the play is set. Initially Pegasus was competing with the Organic Touchstone Company for the Chicago rights, but within a couple of months Crocker got the go-ahead. Aware of the strain The Kentucky Cycle would place on the company's limited financial resources, he took the project to the Pegasus board of directors, who, in a leap of faith, gave the green light.
With a budget of approximately $60,000, The Kentucky Cycle was scheduled to fill this season's first two play slots. Crocker knew the show's success would ultimately depend on the quality of the ensemble. "Everything in The Kentucky Cycle is actor driven," he explains. "They create the scenes." He auditioned 300 actors before calling back 111 of them to compete for 20 slots. Crocker says those who won parts all demonstrated "a willingness to take chances and make fools of themselves onstage" if necessary. Many of the actors say they developed a real passion for the material.
"I reached the point where I was thinking that if I didn't get the part I tried out for, I would have to kill whoever did," says company member Elizabeth Laidlaw. Actor Nick Offerman adds, "It's the most fulfilling thing I've ever done."
After nearly three months of rehearsals, the company's efforts have more than paid off. Unfortunately, Crocker now must struggle to find an audience. "I know this isn't an impulse-buy kind of ticket." He maintains that Pegasus can afford to take a small loss on The Kentucky Cycle, but he's worried that it could turn into a sea of red ink as the run continues through November 24.
Pas de Dish
A year after the Joffrey Ballet took up residence in Chicago, an eye-opening new book on the company is hitting store shelves. Written by Los Angeles-based dance critic Sasha Anawalt, The Joffrey Ballet: Robert Joffrey and the Making of an American Dance Company is a detailed and gossipy history of the ballet company from its inception in 1956 to the death from AIDS of company cofounder Robert Joffrey in 1988. According to the book, the company's vigorous denial of Joffrey's illness in the years prior to his death was linked to a power struggle to name his successor. Board chairman Tony Bliss reportedly wanted his wife Sally to head the troupe instead of Gerald Arpino, who was then assistant director and chief choreographer as well as Joffrey's longtime companion and cofounder of the company. Anawalt claims the bitter fight nearly destroyed the troupe.
Last Friday, Arpino, now the company's artistic director, said he had no control over the book's content:
"I haven't seen it, and I don't know that I will have time to read it." Though Arpino hasn't seen the book, Anawalt says that he fully cooperated while she was doing her research. She admits that the book as it now stands would never have been written if Robert Joffrey were still alive. "He was all about image, and he would not have allowed this book to happen."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Nathan Mandell.