What They Say It Is:
A historically accurate solo performance which biographies the last 4 years of politician Robert F. Kennedy’s life, from 1964 to 1968, and features music, film and footage from the era. Take a trip back to the 1960s and re-live Camelot, or become familiar with one of the best political essayists of our time, who used his time in public service “to seek a newer world.”
Yet another discounted ticket ($15) via fantastic Philadelphia Funsavers. It was a lazy weekend filled with allergy attacks (me) and baby shower for friends (LaReina). . . so this Sunday afternoon presentation of intellectual, serious-minded political commentary/theater was a welcome way to round out a weekend of fun and friends.
RFK is a one-man play starring Russ Widdall (notable for various theater roles and work on HBO’s The Wire and (the wretch-inducing) It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia). Mr. Widdall’s acting chops were on full display in this show, as he capably delivered ninety minutes of monolog, keeping nearly perfect pace and tone throughout. He’s clearly a serious actor who put his heart into this scaled-down, second-stage presentation. When Mr. Widdall took a moment at the conclusion of the show to explain that his own political views led him to his interest in the RFK role, it drove home the point that this play was not being performed in a vacuum–that the 06 November showdown between Democrats and Republicans is simply another chapter in a story that has been running since the time of JFK and beyond.
The show has a serious, introspective tone and is told mostly through monologues that veer between tragic, introspective, and lightly comic (though never getting much funnier than ‘sad clown’ status). RFK spends a great deal of time exploring the painful struggles of a political figure who was content to rise and thrive in his brother’s presidential shadow . . . until that shield was taken away through an act of murder and violence. Accordingly, Widdall’s Kennedy is at times confused, pleading, angry, verklempt, defiant, and resigned. The range of emotion moves quickly between extremes, creating the overall impression of a tormented soul with much to say but overwhelming uncertainty about his best employment. RFK, per this play, was a politician struggling to discover his own position in history, fighting (what is portrayed as) a one-man war against a hostile Republican establishment.
Overall, I generally enjoyed this unique immersion into the world of 1960s Democratic politics. The show’s best moments were not limited to the skill of Mr. Widdall’s solo performance, but were substantially amplified by the multimedia effects that turned this from a simple play into a full sensory experience. Scratchy radio hits and dated television commercials (all from the Kennedy era) flashed across the wall during the pre-show and intermission, while the show itself made frequent side-trips into television footage of various political and societal figures of Kennedy’s time. The theater into a time-portal to an era we’ve all but forgotten, and I liked this experience as much as the acting and unresolved narrative.
I don’t really have anything negative to say about the RFK experience. It might have been nice if the show had attracted more of the ‘standard’ Philadelphia art audience (i.e. the mid 20s – 30s young, hip element). . . as it was, Tara and I were the youngest people in the theater by a solid decade or more. However, this may speak as much to the deficits of our a-political generation as to any lack of marketing on the part of the production. I myself didn’t know this political play was intended as a comment on the times we live in . . . at least not until the actor himself explained it to us. Maybe I’m just dense, or a unwitting representative of the generation I like to criticize.
I would like to begin by agreeing and commending the performance by Russ Widdall. However, I’d like to add some observations that arrived after the curtain had fallen.
At the end of the play, while Clay was using the facilities, I was eavesdropping on the director, Mr. Widdall, and some of their guests (who were congregating in the hall just outside the tiny theater). Mr. Widdall stated that most of the play was taken directly from speeches and texts written by RFK (or RFK’s speech writers). I found that to be an interesting fact to learn, to know that these were truly firsthand accounts of a struggling sibling living in the shadow of his big brother . . . however, it would be nice to have some further perspective. For example, was RFK’s relationship strained with Hoover- not just because Hoover was power hungry and wished to answer only to the president- but because Hoover had the capacity to expose the ‘naughty’ playboy nature of the Kennedys?
I doubt that RFK would have written scandalous things about himself (?), but would it not have been more genuine to discuss these very human indiscretions . . . ? I guess perhaps I am saying that the play portrays RFK as someone who is struggling with power, fame and family . . . someone who may have an infatuation with his brother’s wife, someone who is fumbling to make the ‘right’ choices in a time of conflict with Vietnam-but I found the play to be bit of a rose-colored remembrance. I was thoroughly impressed to find the amount of Greek tragedy quoted, leading me to wonder if the sixties were a more intellectual time? I would say so, if a politician could openly quote Aeschylus and not be seen as elitist. In my humble opinion, I’d personally like to say goodbye to ‘joe the plumber’ and encourage the return of intellectual discourse to American politics.