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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review

No, no, no, no, no! You still don't understand: whether he was guilty or not isn't the point! He deserved the best possible defense whatever he was! — Kunstler
Barrington Stage's newly renovated St. Germain Theatre has opened the 2017 season with Jeffrey Sweet's Kunstler, a riveting 90-minute portrayal of the larger-than-life, often controversial and perpetually rumpled defense lawyer. The always energetic and appealing Jeff McCarthy channels William Moses Kunstler, warts and all. This absorbing and dramatic play highlights his history, personal as well as professional, utilizing the conceit of a law school lecture. Kunstler as an aging and somewhat reviled, clay-footed hero arrives amidst campus protests against what is perceived as his traitorous and questionable legal choices.

Dismissing jeers and chants he whisks his audience seamlessly through the turbulent days of the civil rights movement, the bitterness of Viet Nam, the agony inside the Attica uprising and the corruption of the Wounded Knee trial. Though Kunstler was often accused of being a buffoonish showman, he confesses that this was perhaps the only way to attract attention to his clients' life and death struggles. This notoriety kept them from slipping between the cracks or being railroaded by an all-powerful state.

Of course, through the force of hindsight it is clear that Sweet's Kunstler was prescient in his jaundiced view of American jurisprudence. His revelations and reminiscences enjoy an uncanny parallel to national events being replayed today with a new cast of characters.

McCarthy's power as an actor is seen in his ability to create a believable Kunstler who can burst into song in the middle of angry tirades about the Chicago Seven trial. This is a man who can cheerfully disdain protests which malign his left of left politics and choice of defendants while he vigorously upholds the right of every person — mass murderer, rapist priest, civil rights activist, Mafia don — to the best, well-prepared defense.

McCarthy is, at times, a blustering pontificator as he relishes the intensity of his court battles and then a humble, self-deprecating confessor of his own shortcomings. With his wild mane of white hair, glasses perched on his head, and captivating eyes and smile, the audience is swept along with the fervor of McCarthy's performance as he conjures up the presence of Kunstler, the formidable litigator.

McCarthy's foil, Erin Roche as Kerry Nicholas, is the young law student moderator. She's required, it would seem by her job as vice chair of the program committee, to host grudgingly and at times engage in, although reluctantly, Kunstler's lecture. As an African-American female of the 90's she is less than enchanted by what she sees as a man whose idealism has been tarnished by his recent cases defending, to her mind, less worthy cases.

Forced by Kunstler to participate in his antics and read from transcripts, she valiantly attempts to avoid revealing her true feelings. Roche imbues the character with pithy silences, uncomfortable grimaces, and twitches which reveal her internal struggle to remain objective in spite of internal uneasiness. It is a difficult role, but Roche is superb and registers perfectly-timed and realistic responses to McCarthy's peripatetic meanderings and rants.

Director Meagan Fay allows McCarthy and Roche to express a wide scope of passion without overacting, which would be easy if they were not such professionals. This is a finely-tuned production.

The simple yet effective set by James J. Fenton serves the script and actors without distracting from the story. Betsy Adams' subtle lighting and Will Severin's sound design and original music help to underscore wider currents and subtexts. Elvia Bovenzi's costumes recreate the unkempt Kunstler's penchant for the extreme casual look right down to the terribly knotted tie.

This is a powerful production — part stand-up comedy, history lesson, sermon, and celebration of the human spirit. Sweet's Kunstler has not lost the ability to stir an audience, and, as Roche's character reveals, history has proven many of Kunstler's insights and instincts to be correct.

For a review of the Off-Broadway production (also starring McCarthy), go here.

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Kunstler by Jeffrey Sweet
Directed by Meagan Fay
Cast: Jeff McCarthy (William Kunstler) Erin Roche (Kerry Nicholas)
Scene design: James J. Fenton
Lighting design: Betsy Adams
Costume design: Elivia Bovenzi
Composer and Sound design: Will Severin
Stage Manager: Mary Jane Hansen
Running Time: 90 minutes; no intermission
Barrington Stage Company, St. Germain Stage, Pittsfield, MA
From 5/18/17; opening 5/21/17; closing 6/10/17
Reviewed by Gloria Miller at May 21 performance

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