BWW Review: KENNEDY: THE LAST CRUSADE at Penguin Repertory Theatre
From the moment actor-playwright David Arrow takes the stage, it's clear he is not merely portraying Robert F. Kennedy, he is Bobby Kennedy. The actor bears a stunning physical resemblance to the late U.S. Attorney General and senator and has managed to master his mannerisms in most convincing fashion.
The play begins at the end of Kennedy's 1968 campaign and quickly flashes back and follows candidate Kennedy on the road during the final few months of his life. The play begins by dealing with much of the mundane detail concerning Kennedy's initial reticence to enter the campaign in March of 1968 - his difficulty stepping out of his brother's long shadow and his familial concerns.
The story gets more and more interesting as we learn of the candidate's enmity towards incumbent president, Lyndon Johnson, whom Kennedy views as having lied to the country for too long regarding Vietnam. Kennedy also has to contend with the enormously popular Senator from Minnesota, Eugene McCarthy, who has also expressed an interest in challenging Johnson. Director Eric Nightengale uses clever video projections and audio cues to follow Kennedy from whistle stop to whistle stop, delivering his message - taking what could be a simple laundry list of campaign speeches and promises and turning them into compelling theater.
When President Johnson unexpectedly announces he will not seek reelection the entire Democratic party is thrown into disarray. Not surprisingly, Vice President Hubert Humphrey opportunistically throws his hat into the race to further complicate matters.
The piece is really one part play and one part documentary. The speeches alone are thrilling enough to make an audience stand and cheer, but it's the more intimate, almost confessional moments where Arrow speaks more directly and less formally to the audience that make the work so special.
The play really has no dramatic structure or arc to speak of and is purely episodic, but watching the candidate struggle to overcome his own internal demons, his family issues, his inferiority complex concerning his late brother makes for riveting theater. The audience sees the candidate grow dramatically from a somewhat unsure, indecisive political novice (a bit of a stretch considering Kennedy's already long and storied political history) to a confident, powerful, man on a mission.
The huge historical events that took place in the country during these months add great depth to the story - and give Arrow the chance to show much deeper elements of RFK's character. His moments dealing with the assassination of Martin Luther King are simply magical, as the candidate asks himself, in very human manner, why he does all this? Does anyone appreciate it? He is a man of great wealth, power and comfort in life. He doesn't NEED to go to Atlanta to get beaten up when he's trying to show his concern. But he does. And that is what made RFK such a special human being. And that is what makes Kennedy: The Last Crusade such a special work. It is extraordinarily timely, both in context and in message, and more importantly, Arrow reminds us all that there was a time - not all that long ago - when people (even people of wealth, privilege and power) put their neighbor, their brothers' and their sisters' needs before their own, and that nobody wins unless everybody wins. Kennedy's empathy is the heart and soul of the play and Arrow does an exceptional job of embodying that empathy.
There are some over the top, corny moments (when Kennedy sings Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land") but by and large Arrow successfully avoids the traps of over sentimentality.
James Morgan's set design featured a myriad of campaign posters and handbills strewn around the proscenium and on the stage, along with balloons and confetti, suggesting the aftermath of a political rally. Miriam Nilofa Crowe's lighting was critical to keeping sharp focus on the various places and times within the play and effectively helped the transitions in the storyline that might not have been so delineated. Kathrine R Mitchell's projection designs were first rate: one part Ken Burns documentary and one part cutting edge video, keeping the audience aware of the locations of each scene.
The play packs a great deal of information into ninety minutes but never ceases to be entertaining. However, the truly amazing thing about "Kennedy: Bobby's Last Crusade" is that it is not a nostalgia piece. It is extremely relevant - maybe more than ever! Penguin has a hit on its hands. Rush to get your tickets, if there are any left!
- Peter Danish
Photo credit: Chris Yacopino