Review: An Enthralling, “Kennedy: Bobby’s Last Crusade” at The Penguin Rep Theatre

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  • Pia Haas, Contributing Critic - New York

Stony Point, NY - Environmental concerns; mass incarceration; civil rights; health care costs; gun control; illiteracy; racial injustice; income inequality, starving American children; government funding for social programs; military expenditures on mass destruction; Sound familiar?

It was the liberal platform that Robert Francis Kennedy ran on in 1968 when he sought the Democratic party’s nomination for President.  Bobby's speeches particularly those about race, the cities, jobs, poverty, and welfare, could be delivered almost verbatim today. Considering that these issues continue to tear us apart 50 years later, is a disheartening reality.

The riveting one-man show, “Kennedy: Bobby’s Last Crusade”, written and performed by David Arrow is the current offering at The Penguin Theatre.  A perfect venue for this intimate portrait of the young politician driven by conscience and compassion.

Robert Francis Kennedy was the younger brother of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. He also served as his Attorney General. The play follows his campaign during the three months from the announcement of his candidacy to his assassination in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel.

The junior Senator from New York, at the time, was competing for the nomination with Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, and the party's incumbent, President Lyndon Johnson.  Johnson, unpopular due to his policies regarding the Vietnam war, later announced he would not seek reelection almost assuring the victory of RFK.

Shortly after winning the California primary around midnight on June 5, 1968, and two months after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Bobby was shot by Sirhan Sirhan, a 24-year-old Palestinian, allegedly in retaliation for his support of Israel following the 1967 Six-Day War.

When we first meet Robert Kennedy (David Arrow), he has just been killed. A surrealistic beginning finds him in a state of limbo, trying to understand what has happened to him. Through a series of flashbacks, we are taken on a journey with him on his campaign trail. Many of Kennedy’s most famous and impactful speeches are quoted as we share his triumphs, his strategies and his insecurities. We learn about his relationships with Ethel and his 11 children, Jackie, Ted, Martin Luther King, and so many others who touched his heart.

The set, designed by James Morgan, is the deserted ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel after the shooting, is clever and ominous. It is littered with confetti, balloons, campaign signs and newspapers. The lighting design by Miriam Nilofa Crowe is masterful as it clearly distinguishes the many locations. We find ourselves in convention halls, whistle stops and the surreal private place in his mind, where he invites us in to share his most personal of musings. The large projections, by Kathrine R Mitchell, intriguing and informative, are a series of photographs which are evocative of those times.  The dates and places of RFK’s campaign stops are conveniently projected to keep us in pace with the unfolding events. Properties by Buffy Cordoza are spot on and complete the visual perfection. Ben Scheff’s sound design vividly recreates the hectic campaign ambiance. Excerpts of RFK’s actual speeches bring a lump to one’s throat as we hear his idealistic and eloquent voice. Director, Eric Nightengale skillfully moves our protagonist with choreographic grace around the stage, never missing an emotional beat, with a brisk pace that never lets up.

The 90 minutes fly by as we find ourselves totally enraptured by the stories; sights & sounds all brought to vivid life by the brilliant David Arrow. It is a performance filled with humor and vulnerability. Arrow resembles Bobby with his boyish good looks, that long hair, the piercing blue eyes, and the convincing Massachusetts accent. He initially played Robert Kennedy, in Jack Holmes’s play, RFK. That experience prompted him to learn more about Kennedy and, eventually, to write the script for this show. It is a brilliantly conceived and sincere tribute to a Democratic hero of the past.   

“What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness; but is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.” – Robert F. Kennedy

This limited engagement of KENNEDY: BOBBY'S LAST CRUSADE, runs through Sunday, July 7th.  Performance days and times are Thursday evenings at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday nights at 8:00 p.m., with matinees on Saturdays at 4:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m.

Penguin's intimate, 108-seat theatre is located at 7 Crickettown Road, in historic Stony Point (Rockland County), New York. 
Phone: 845-786-2873