by Barbara Waldinger
KUNSTLER: A showman’s portrayal of a showman
In this year of political unrest, Barrington Stage Company has elected to open their 2017 season with the story of William Kunstler, the renowned radical lawyer and civil rights activist. Jeff McCarthy, a longtime Associate Artist with Barrington Stage who plays Kunstler, describes him in a WAMC interview as a “wild and woolly character” accused of being a “showboater and a grandstander.” In fact, Kunstler himself acknowledged: “I’ve been accused of being a showman, to which I plead guilty.” His aim was to use his notoriety to attract attention to his clients’ causes. McCarthy, in a perfect blend of physicality and verbal dexterity, resurrects the colorful Kunstler in body and spirit.
Produced by Saratoga-based The Creative Place International/AND Theater Company, Kunstler was first performed at the Hudson Stage Company in 2013, followed by a sold-out run at 59E59th, and will go on to a National Tour with Jeff McCarthy in 2018/19.
More than two decades after his death, the subject of the play still provokes conversation and controversy, in which BSC does not shrink from taking part. Playwright Jeffrey Sweet appeared at the theatre to discuss the process of writing Kunstler in a talk-back following the May 20th evening performance. On June 3rd, Karin Kunstler will engage in Barrington’s “Conversations With” series, delivering an “Up-Close Portrait” of her father. It’s a family industry: two other daughters, Emily and Sarah Kunstler, have produced a documentary about their father entitled: “William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe,” screened at Sundance in 2009.
The conceit of Sweet’s play is that it takes place at an unnamed university where Kunstler is scheduled to speak in 1995. As we enter the theatre, we find on our seats an orange leaflet, supposedly distributed by protesting students, depicting Kunstler with the word BOYCOTT in bold black letters. With misspellings that testify to the state of higher education in the United States, the dissidents accuse him of defending traitors, terrorists and rapists. On the stage hangs an effigy of Kunstler, dressed in the suit that McCarthy will wear, with the sign “Traitor” around his neck. The floor is strewn with garbage and overturned chairs. The set, designed by James J. Fenton in accordance with Sweet’s stage directions, consists of a series of whitish stone slabs in a semi-circle (which Kunstler comically likens to Kubrick monoliths), a white stone floor, and a circular ceiling fixture interspersed with lights. The use of multi-colored lights (designed by Betsy Adams) and sounds (by composer and sound designer Will Severin) are used to great effect in adding tension to the play. A podium stands upstage.
We meet Kerry Nicholas, played by Erin Roché, the law student who is assigned to introduce Kunstler, despite the fact that she voted against his appearance at the school. She clears the stage, listens to Kunstler’s description of some of his most well-known cases, and is even talked into participating at times. She embodies the angry students whose chanting voices outside the room are often heard. After Kunstler regales us with stories of the cases in which the rights of minorities were clearly trampled, including the Freedom Riders, the Catonsville 9, the Chicago 8, the prisoners at Attica and the American Indian Movement, it falls to Kerry Nicholas to let us know why Kunstler was so controversial and even hated. What lends dramatic irony to this confrontation between them is that Kerry Nicholas is a woman of color. She takes issue with Kunstler representing unpopular clients like mobster John Gotti, but she also cites his defense of Colin Ferguson, who turned his gun on fellow Long Island Railroad passengers, a crime Kunstler justified as resulting from “black rage.” Nicholas is incensed by this excuse for racism and likewise offended by Kunstler’s willingness to represent the young black man who orally confessed to attacking and raping a Central Park jogger. Though she is a student, she seems to hold her own in this debate and Roché does her character proud.
But it is McCarthy who wins the day, using every theatrical means at his disposal to take us on Kunstler’s journey. Directed by the creative and capable Meagen Fay, this production employs the St. Germain Stage to become part of the action—its aisles, stairs, the area in front and below the stage and even the audience. McCarthy is a tremendously exciting and energetic presence, who rarely remains behind the podium, except for the times when he becomes a stand-up comic, trying out the jokes he will tell at his upcoming birthday party at Caroline’s Comedy Club. He interacts with the audience, sings, uses accents, gestures and movements to play many different characters, is a compelling storyteller, quotes Shakespeare, is a ‘”hugger,” and is as passionate about defending due process as he is horrified by the crimes committed in the name of the law. Although we can see the physical toll of Kunstler’s lifetime of struggle to “change the system,” as McCarthy closes and opens his fingers and massages his legs to get the circulation going, he refuses to admit his weakness. Kunstler affords us the opportunity to witness the meeting of a master actor and a master litigator.
Kunstler runs from May 18 –June 10 Tuesday through Saturday at 7:30pm; Thursday, Saturday and Sunday at 3:00pm; St. Germain Stage at the Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center. For tickets and information call the Barrington Stage Box Office at 413-236-8888 or visit www.barringtonstageco.org.
The Creative Place International/AND Theatre Company presents Kunstler by Jeffrey Sweet. Cast: Jeff McCarthy (Kunstler), Erin Roché (Kerry). Lighting Design: Betsy Adams, Costume Design: Elivia Bovenzi, Scenic Design: James J. Fenton, Composer and Sound Design: Will Severin, Production Stage Manager: Mary Jane Hansen. Running Time: 90 minutes without intermission; St. German Stage (36 Linden Street, Pittsfield). Tuesdays through Sundays from 5/18; closing 6/10.