REVIEW- RFK – San Jose Stage Company

There are days of late, when I spy a gray hair protruding from my pigtails and I think for a moment; so this is “old.” Such moments seem increasingly more frequent for this lady in her 40th year and while these moments are maybe unworthy of celebration, I can’t say they’re wholly unexpected, nor are they avoidable to any degree. So I’m resolute to say that along with these wiry ghosts that insist on sprouting defiantly from my follicles, age brings me a certain breadth of worldly knowledge and experience with which to draw upon. The badge of being “old enough” to know or remember has its benefits in the art of conversation and especially in the audience of a theater production. Then there are moments when I conclude maybe… just maybe, I’m too young? Certainly in the case of RFK at San Jose Stage, I wondered if being under 60 contributed significantly to my lack of connection to this theatrical endeavor. I also might argue that age shouldn’t really be a factor in any good theater, that art’s goal should be to transcend any unfamiliarity or even bias to the topic or story at hand. I couldn’t help but wonder if the specifics of this period in time were both too modern and too far past for me to fully engage but also, if the production was more to blame that I wanted to admit.

It’s not hard to get excited about a one man show. A basic, static set and no fancy costume changes or technical gimmick by no means equates to lesser entertainment (so long as the acting, directing and script are all on the same page.) It is however always hard to “critique” anyone on stage who is responsible for 2 hours of storytelling and must do so single-handedly. Doubly difficult when there’s an iconic character the actor must bring to life. To skate the line between authentic, nuanced portrayal and flat impersonation is arguably a battle against hundreds of individual expectations. To compete with video and in this case even direct memories of RFK, is a nearly insurmountable chore. Add to that additional interpretations (a Hoover and LBJ) plus some non-linear plot devices, and we have a task that is a little bit frightening to put it mildly. While not easy, I’ve seen similar efforts taken on with wonderful results, and I felt there were some uphill battles that distracted in this particular undertaking. Pacing and obvious line flubs can all be overlooked easily if the conviction is there, but for whatever reason, I didn’t see consistency or layered levels played in a way that allowed me to see beyond a good actor on stage for the majority of the show.

While anyone can comprehend on some level that difficult time in the nation’s history, the unique opportunity of this story is the tragedy and hopelessness at the realization that even a privileged, white male in power, seemingly can’t be the catalyst for change at a pace he can personally reconcile. That people, his brother for one, and thousands in Vietnam for another, had been killed, and in the months since JFK’s assassination, though everything had “changed” nothing was changing. I heard/saw complaining and blame, I didn’t hear (with the exception of a few brief moments when he talked on abject poverty) the struggle from his perspective and how unsettling that was to “A Kennedy.” I wanted to be let into that vulnerability and see it through his perspective, I wanted to see why he had a reputation, wanted to see him get ugly and angry and fight and then have his moments of utter distress, disillusionment and even depression. Politician and human sides weren’t fully fleshed out I think. The script, the performance, the production, or all of the above, I think were just too even keeled. Too safe and diplomatic.

Did I leave knowing more? Was an opinion about RFK changed or confirmed? Did I understand, sympathize, care for the side of the story, the glimpse into his life that he told. Truthfully, I felt disconnected. What’s more, much of these topics are still pertinent and I DO have a reference for them. The news is rife with racial injustice and our government is still entangled in complex military conflicts. Both the limitations and the power of governments and even individuals are top of mind. So while I didn’t grow up with this RFK history, my age doesn’t remove me so much that it should prevent me from being engaged. Even if it’s not “history” it is His Story. From page to stage I felt it was still too tentative and detached within itself to be up to the task of connecting me.

2 1/2 out of 5 jewels in the review tiara, for a show that may well impress those who have a built-in attachment to the content, but may leave someone coming into it unbiased a bit underwhelmed.  RFK played through October 25th at the San Jose Stage in San Jose.

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