Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Review: 'RFK'

An exceptional one-man show about Bobby Kennedy, the president's little brother who loomed large in national life, is from New City Stage Company. Inquirer theater critic Howard Shapiro reviews.

Review: 'RFK'

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Russ Widdall as Robert F. Kennedy in New City Stage Company's production of "RFK."

By Howard Shapiro

The history play RFK, which opened Saturday in Center City, is special in several ways. It has a rare quality for a one-person play because it operates through two acts that feel genuine, not like the usual forced conversation with unearned extremes. RFK also puts us easily into another era — and in this production, with time-machine force.

And it’s exceptionally performed, by Russ Widdall, the co-artistic director of New City Stage Company, the play’s producer. Widdall does not look like Robert F. Kennedy, the man he inhabits for two hours, but he sounds and moves like him — or at least like the general memory of him, which for an audience is as good as the real thing.

The force of Widdall’s performance, though, comes not from the way he carries himself or appears — it’s because of the passion he gives Kennedy or maybe, he appropriates from Kennedy. Either way, at RFK you’re in for a portrayal that comes across as genuine and straightforward.

RFK is directed by Ginger Dayle, the company’s producing artistic director — it’s the first time she herself has staged a play. She does a fine job of pacing Widdall and neatly melding the plays intricacies; RFK, like many single-character plays, shifts back and forth in times, but does so with grace and electricity. One minute you’re watching Kennedy fail at making a good campaign ad, the next he’s at home trying to fend off his children — 10 of them, while he was alive. And the next, he’s off in South Africa giving a speech.

Jack Holmes, a playwright who’s done much research, weaves us solidly into the ’60s with realistic talk from President John F. Kennedy’s brother, who was his campaign manager and then, attorney general and later, a U.S. senator from New York. At his assassination in 1968 at the age of 42, Bobby7 Kennedy was a Democratic contender for president.

If are of an age to remember that time, Widdall’s performance will resonate with you. If you’re not, look and learn. RFK’s concerns and interests, and the way Widdall telegraphs them in his portrayal, are a catalogue of the era’s issues — everything from the new music (Grace Slick et al) to Vietnam (he split vocally with President Johnson, who supported and enlarged it), to his brother’s mistakes and challenges and to his own.

The feel of that time is made complete by Ren Manley’s superb video and sound design — she’s collected just the right footage and smartly put it together, not just for the show, but for the minutes before it begins and all through its intermission. One point becomes clear: It was the era of Camelot, and it was also a terrible time.

Contact Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727,, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at Hear his reviews at the Classical Network,
RFK: Produced by New City Stage Co. through Oct. 21 at the Adrienne Theatre, 2030 Sansom St. Tickets: $10-$30. Information: 215-563-7500 or

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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