POST: 'Kunstler' - this guy was Bernie, before Bernie

What's it about?

Kunstler is a retelling of the life of lawyer and activist William Kunstler, who presided over trials and lawsuits for the Freedom Riders, Black Panthers, Chicago Seven, American Indian Movement and more. It is set in a college lecture hall, and we are his audience.

What I experienced?

One of my favorite things about plays with small casts is that the characters often have more outlandish personalities. I always find those characters captivating! It lets me focus on a particular turn of phrase or mannerism exhibited by a character. It's almost like I am developing a personal rapport with a character: I start anticipating his/her ways of speaking, acting and moving about the stage. It's much easier to study them, which I tend to do during a particularly interesting show.

The set (and theatre) felt like a lecture hall. From the recordings of protestors on the speakers, to the lectern at center stage, I could truly envision myself in that lecture hall, and I willingly believed I was there.

I could sense that I was affected by the current political climate while watching this play. I mean, it was hard not to think about current events. In my experience, most theatre is somewhat political. It's not always overt, but the themes and messaging usually tie back to a sociopolitical cause. This play cast that subtlety aside. Here you have this “radical lawyer” talking about working with the ACLU, defending the Black Panthers, and bearing witness to a state-sponsored shooting (the Attica Prison Riot, for those interested). With these themes and organizations popping up pretty much everyday in the real world right now, it was almost comforting for me to know that – at least in some way – the political reality we occupy isn’t a new story.

Throughout the show, Kunstler would exhibit difficulty moving around, getting up and sitting down, etc. While it did feed a little into my expectation of a cranky old man, I liked seeing a character in the twilight of life. It made the whole show feel like I was sitting and listening to a grandpa trying to impart wisdom, or warn the younger generation not to repeat the mistakes of history (a lesson we never truly seem to internalize). Truthfully, I think I was more focused on the man than the story.

But there was another character in this show... A young, black female law student named Kerry. She served as Kunstler’s introducer. Let’s be honest, Kunstler was quite the oddball and defended some questionable clients (Colin Ferguson, Omar Abdel-Rahman, Yusef Salaam, the list goes on. Seriously, this guy’s body of work is something else). As I was watching, it became harder to see Kunstler as a hero. How did a man who defended Civil Rights heroes later defend murderers and mobsters? I felt like Kerry served as the voice of a younger generation, more concerned with people’s sensitivities and political correctness. Meanwhile, Kunstler lived for the complexity and the challenge of these politically charged cases. I was invigorated watching these two generations’ ways of thinking battle it out on stage. I wound up thinking a lot more about the merit of both viewpoints. It's always good for me to step out of my comfort zone and think deeply about political questions.

I do wish I had gotten to hear more from Kerry. She had her select moments, but much of the play was just Kunstler rambling and rambling. Maybe that’s what he was like in real life? He died a year after I was born, in 1995, so I have no idea. I think her absence from much of the middle of the play sharply affected my experience. That was the time I was most immersed in the viewpoints of Kunstler, in the history of the cases. 

Us young theatergoers may feel a little out of place at this show – the central character died while most of us were in diapers or not even born – plus the aggregate age of the other attendees was at least 60. But never fear! This guy was Bernie before Bernie was a big name Senator. Crazy white hair? Check. Radical political views? Check. New York-born Jewish man? Check. Honestly, it was almost creepy how similar they are. And his voice is sooooo good – I definitely enjoyed the play even more just because I enjoyed listening to him talk. I think it was good for me to step outside of my usual and see something about a man I knew nothing about. I definitely learned a lot.

Want to see it?

$15 Student Rush

@ 59 E 59 Theaters
thru Mar. 13

What did you experience?

Let PXP know in the comments below...