Schenkkan’s cycle offers, along with its large doses of history and melodrama, flights of poetry and a keen sense of place. What Zeitgeist adds, in this vigorous chamber staging, is human scale. The saga unfolds in the tiny BCA Black Box on and between two small stages, and for all the opportunity, there is little hamboning among Miller’s 23 non-Equity players, who also provide the music, from the sweet strains of “Amazing Grace” to the union songs of the ’20s. A house band made up of cast members even provides a pre-show concert of regional tunes bound to get your toes tapping before our bloodstained history steps on them.
As he proved with Stuff Happens, the David Hare drama depicting the run-up to the Iraq War (which last year seemed an accomplishment but compared to this looks like a Beckett play), Miller is adept at deploying his talented non-professionals — who here include two refreshingly natural kids, Matthew Scott Robinson and Jacob Rosenbaum. The actors bounce among roles without, for the most part, falling into delineating caricature. Even the worst of the characters is pitiable. Callous dynasty maker Michael Rowen is imbued by Michael Steven Costello with a demonic energy that’s irresistible. Christine Power brings a lyrical fierceness to reluctant union matriarch Mary Anne Rowen. Peter Brown is effective as both a fire-and-brimstone preacher whose Bible is a retribution manual and a 20th-century United Mine Workers leader squeezed into a compromise that proves both fatal and personal. There are robust turns, too, by Bill Bruce, Amanda Good Hennessey, and Jonathan Orsini. And the whole cast is to be admired for getting its collective arms around this Herculean effort and remembering from moment to moment just where in the course of its all-too-human events they are.
“The essence of reality is meaning, or sense. What doesn’t make sense to us is not reality.” So begins a quote from Bruno Schulz in the program for REPUBLIC OF DREAMS (at Charlestown Working Theater through October 13), the roughhewn Double Edge Theatre piece inspired by the Polish-Jewish magical realist’s surreal stories and vaguely sinister, vaguely sexual drawings. Doubtless there is meaning in Republic of Dreams, for those who can unearth it from the dingy phantasmagoric swirl, but there is not much sense. Double Edge does not do sense, preferring to confront its audience with bursts of sound and imagery. In Republic of Dreams these tend to come hurtling from a movable wardrobe that is less a portal out of C.S. Lewis than a door to some bleak 1930s Alice in Wonderland: the village of Drohobycz, then in Poland, now part of Ukraine, where Schulz spent his 50 years (1892–1942) before becoming the victim of a random revenge killing by an occupying Nazi.
Stacy Klein, who has spearheaded Double Edge for 25 years (first in Allston, now in Ashfield), is not the first to be inspired by Schulz, whose writings and drawings seems to presage the horrors of World War II while extolling “the fantastic” as a sounder fortress than any bunker. Philip Roth and John Updike are among the champions of this author/artist whose slim output is compared to that of Kafka or Proust (though his madeleines would seem to have been spiked by Alice B. Toklas). Cynthia Ozick built a novel, The Messiah of Stockholm, on Schulz. There have been films inspired by both The Street of Crocodiles and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, the mixtures of memoir and phantasmagoria on which Republic also draws. And in 1992, London’s Théâtre de Complicité also took its place on Crocodile Street.