When the late Manny Farber criticized formally sterile, self-aggrandizing movies with his coinage, “white elephant art,” he might well have had Robert Schenkkan’s overblown nine-play historical saga in mind. Schenkkan’s ambition is certainly mammoth — a politically corrected recasting of American history as an unbroken chain of avarice, violence and victimization all told through the fatefully intertwined lives of three Eastern Kentucky mountain clans. Part 1, which follows the Biggs, Rowen and Talbert family feud from the Revolution through the Civil War, is high in both melodramatic incident and body count. Miscreant patriarch Michael Rowen (David Vegh) commits enough murders in the first hour to give Ted Bundy a run for his money. But what makes the play a stuffed pachyderm rather than the unique work of personal vision worthy of Farber’s praise is Schenkkan’s stubbornly pedestrian language and preference for the big theme over carefully observed characterization. There’s much dialogue about the patch of bottom land that sparks the epic bloodbath but little of the nuance or poetry that might bring the antebellum landscape to dramatic life. Director Trevor Biship contributes little more than the odd (and sometimes strangely ghoulish) stage flourish. When it comes to suggesting some deeper, inner life to the characters, therefore, the onus falls squarely on the ensemble. To that end, the craggy-faced Vegh is a double delight as both the villainous Michael and his scripture-quoting, sociopathic grandson, Ezekiel. And Kyle Hall brings a fine sense of flawed nobility to the Civil War–era Rowen, Jed. National Guard Armory, 854 E. Seventh St., Long Beach; Fri., 8 p.m.; in rep with Part 2: Tues.-Thurs., 7:30 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; through Dec. 13. (562) 985-5526
Fridays, 8 p.m.; Tuesdays-Thursdays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 & 8 p.m. Starts: Oct. 24. Continues through Dec. 13, 2008
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