Barrington Stage, Pittsfield, MA
through June 10, 2017
by Jarice Hanson
As you enter the theatre there are protest flyers on chairs, and a large, suit-clad effigy hanging on the stage with a sign that says “Traitor.” Soon you realize that you’re in a law school auditorium in the mid-1990s, where the iconoclastic civil rights lawyer, William Kunstler has been asked to talk about his most famous cases, including his representation of Black Panther Co-Founder, Bobby Seale, the Chicago Seven, inmates of the Attica prison riots, Native Americans at Wounded Knee in 1973, Yusef Salaam, one of the accused members of the “Central Park Jogger” case, and many more. Was Kunstler a radical lawyer, political hypocrite, or committed defender of Constitutional rights? Jeffrey Sweet’s highly intelligent play allows the audience to be the jury to decide on the sum total of Kunstler’s character and career.
Photo credit: Carol Rosegg
Jeff McCarthy is outstanding as Kunstler, drawing on his theatrical skills as a comic, impersonator, and brilliant communicator. His disheveled hair and physicality reflective of Kunstler’s health at the time, are magnets. You simply can’t take your eyes off of him as he cracks a joke, works the audience, or retreats into a memory. In the difficult role of a young law student forced to share the stage with Kunstler when the student Committee Chair fails to show up, Erin Roché is adorable and equally mesmerizing. In a passionate exchange on idealism and the law, the student challenges Kunstler’s choice of cases that, by the mid-1990s, make him appear to be a “sell-out.” Kunstler replies, “If you think my cases have declined in nobility, well, I can only chose from what is offered me. And so I do.”
Director Meagen Fay uses the theatre/auditorium to great advantage, proving that the stage alone isn’t adequate to contain Kunstler’s driving energy. Kudos too, to Betsy Adams’ lighting design and Will Severin’s sound design, the latter of which subtly brings in the chants of those students boycotting Kunstler’s appearance.
Barrington Stage’s production of “Kunstler” provides the audience with a master class in acting and reminds us of a larger-than-life character who deserves to live in our collective memory.