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Political Theatre: RNC & RFK

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Next week is the Republican National Convention, a four-day event, that if the DNC was any indication, will be less a passionate discussion about difficult policy decisions, and more a carefully choreographed pageant of rhetoric. In other words: politics as theatrical spectacle.

But theater really should be experienced live, so those not traveling to New York, should be aware that here in Los Angeles, there is a wonderful example of political theater-the authentic kind-taking place this weekend.

On a small stage in West Hollywood, an intimate one-man show is playing about a junior senator from a Northwestern state, racked with guilt after voting to allow the President to bomb a far away country that he knows is not an imminent threat to America. This play, however, is not about John Forbes Kerry, but rather Robert Francis Kennedy, who would eventually break solidarity with his party and speak out against the Vietnam War.

The Awful Grace of God: A Portrait of Robert F. Kennedy presents the former Attorney General and Senator from New York as a man tortured by the deaths of his siblings: first his brother Joe, who was killed in W.W.II, and then of course, his brother John, who was gunned down in Dallas.

-Tragedy is a tool for the living,- this line is quoted throughout the play and it-s taken from Aeschylus, reported to be Bobby Kennedy-s favorite playwright. Of course, history shows that RFK attended more Broadway musicals than he did productions of Antigone; but it-s understandable that the younger Kennedy would gravitate to Greek tragedy during the deacde of the 1960-s.

JFK-s assassination, LBJ-s Lear-like fall from power, Robert Kennedy was a close witness to these and all the other tragic events of that time, so any work dealing with the last four years of his life has a full dramatic cupboard to pull from. But what makes this one-man show feel like a true play, and not just a recitation of dates and anecdotes, is the way it carefully charts RFK-s interior drama.

Kennedy is shown to be a guy who would have loved to simply teach school and spend time with his 11 kids, but because of his obligation to his brothers- memory-and his awareness of the unique power bestowed upon him as part of the Kennedy legacy-is compelled to run for public office. This makes for a genuinely compelling character study, one that is only enhanced by Holmes- performance. He not only looks and sounds like RFK but what-s more is that he appears to think just like Bobby Kennedy. In the actor-s eyes, you can see the impulsive curiosity that personified Bobby Kennedy even more than his Boston accent or his boyish flip of hair.

Of course, many considered Robert Kennedy, from his days working on Senate subcommittees up until his presidential campaign, to be the ultimate opportunist. Naturally much of this was just political venom, but the early years of RFK-s career contained elements that were certainly contradictory to his later beliefs.

Unfortunately, Holmes does not delve into these parts of Kennedy-s life. Why did Kennedy support McCarthy? Why did Kennedy pursue organized crime with such ruthlessness? The Awful Grace of God does not whitewash these aspects, but by not investigating the decisions that RFK made then, we can-t fully appreciate the actions he took later.

But even if this one-man show doesn-t quite achieve the level of Greek Tragedy itself, it-s entertaining, insightful, and most of all, it is heartbreaking. The tragic end of Bobby Kennedy-s life is known by all, especially Angelenos. The finale of the play is nobly understated, but throughout the whole piece, one cannot help but mourn the man-as well as the dreams-that died here in Los Angeles thirty six years ago.

The Awful Grace of God: A Portrait of Robert F. Kennedy runs through this Sunday at the Court Theatre.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

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