“Kunstler” Warms with Righteous Fury

Jeff McCarthy/Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp, 2016

Jeffrey Sweet’s 2017 play “Kunstler” is an engaging portrait of the civil rights activist lawyer William Kunstler, which is being given a one-weekend run at the Universal Preservation Hall by The Creative Place/iTheatre Saratoga, and stars the superb Jeff McCarthy as the titular hero.

Since the play’s premiere and a subsequent run at Barrington Stage in the summer of ’17, the topics covered by the big cases on Kunstler’s resume have only become more urgent and relevant with the passage of time. The Freedom Riders, the Chicago 8, Attica, Wounded Knee and the Central Park 5 revisit us frequently with their issues of equal justice and their cast of characters.

Jeff McCarthy/Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp, 2016

Broadway veteran McCarthy (“Urinetown,” “Side Show”) brings his star power to the role and tore up the UPH stage on a bitter cold night. He hurled himself into the room and in the guise of addressing a college audience, many who objected to his presence, launched into his lefe story and his many battles and victories fighting for the oppressed. McCarthy is even more physical and vibrant than he was six years ago; lurching about, steadying himself, slapping circulation back into his legs and hugging…I was the grateful recipient of one of his warm hugs Friday night.

Director Meagen Fay has supported the performance with her lighting designer Betsy Adams and sound designer Will Severin who punctuate and add background to the many anecdotes from his career, none more effective or chilling than when Kunstler tries to bring the Attica standoff to a peaceful conclusion. He stands unsteadily on a chair and addresses the crowd of convicts on the possibility of amnesty, only to let them know that the guard William Quinn had died of injuries sustained and there would be no chance of amnesty. The upstage lights went off in a searching pattern, the soundtrack popped with gunfire and the audience sat rapt as a riot erupted with the stage craft. Well done.

McCarthy is given a foil in the personage of Nykila Norman as Kerry, a reluctant college student on the committee presenting Kunstler, who objects to his representation of some of his more controversial figures late in his career such as Yusuf Saalam and John Gotti. She is on stage throughout the play and is very much alive and present throughout, ready to give the powerful actor opposition when needed.

Jeff McCarthy/Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp, 2016

“Kunstler” was a bracing blast of righteous fury, hot enough with indignation to warm on a painfully frigid night.

“Kunstler” has a Fringe Fest Benefit after the February 5 matinee. Your $20 benefit donation on top of your ticket includes a meet and greet with the cast, hors d’oeuvres from Mama Mia’s and wine from Purdy’s Discount Wine and Liquor to assist iTheatre Saratoga/CPI AND Theatre Company’s journey to the 2023 Fringe Fest in Edinburgh, Scotland. www.itheatresaratoga.org

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