Tuesday, June 13, 2017

New production of "Kennedy's Children," 1974 classic, underscores the 2017 challenges for Obama's "children"

Regeneration Theatre's new production of Robert Patrick's classic 1974 play, "Kennedy's Children" benefits greatly from the hindsight of 2017, the perceptive direction of Erin Soler and the curatorial insight of producer Barnaby Edwards. In his note about the new production, Edwards writes that on November 9th, 2016, "I woke up that morning knowing that a play I had been thinking about for some time needed, urgently to be seen again." He had it right. This play is incredibly relevant for 2017.

In the late 1970's when I landed in New York, I was a playwright produced elsewhere and eager to see new work. I submitted to workshops, went to readings and local shows. I saw "Kennedy's Children" in an early production and remember feeling annoyed by histrionic pathos, slow pacing and what seemed steriotyped characters. A few years junior to the characters, I had lived through some of the same experiences. To be fair to the playwright, I got hold of a script. On the page, the speeches of his 60s refugees were moving. The bar setting gave more perspective than what I had seen.
Clearly, a sharper interpretation was needed.

I never saw the later star-studded Broadway production but "Kennedy's Children"in  Regeneration's astute production has stepped up the pace and the stakes. Still in their 20's, these characters are damaged, struggling for footing after a decade of political and social upheavel, when the "center," no longer held. The loss of Kennedy's Camelot,"that once bright shining moment," is poignantly related by Nicole Greevy's Wanda, as the end of the promise that Kennedy represented. A kind of idealism, to do what he would have done right for America and the world, inspires his lost "children."

The "Mother Courage" of this cast is Rona, played by the excellent Sara Minisquero with an edge of history. As she continually moves forward to a bright shining future of justice and truth, her way is full of mirages and dead ends. The irony is not lost on Rona. Minisquero recreates the feisty idealistic hippie, who marches and demonstrates for a decade, wherever she's needed, whaever the costs. Damn the arrests, her mission is to make a difference. Minisquero deftly pivots from exaltation to deep regret. The evolution of the youth culture from a celebration of nature and love with music amid drug enhancement, somehow deteriorates from Woodstock onward to a drug culture of death and exploitation. Her sorrow and loss for what went wrong informs Patrick's words.

The Vietnam veteran, Mark-- lost, crazy and drug addled-- is painfully familiar from depictions on screens and in the reality of Vietnam Vets begging on sidewalks. I salute Timothy Regan's portrayal of a man at odds with the idealism that once fuelled his mission. His struggle is to reconcile the dismantelling of political truisms and his loyalty to his mission, the merging of friends with enemies, the death and mutiliation of war without end or purpose. Mark's despair at the impossibility of finding the person he once was, the self his mother would never recognize, is so visceral, paranoia and drugs are merely the top layer of his tortured psyche.

Patrick's other two characters, the pre-pride gay actor Sparger (Colin Chapin) and Carla, the would-be sex goddess  (Jessica Carollo) are both idealists, whose loss of family and identity spur them to invent alternative realities. The personal price of such ambitions is high. Sparger chases fantasy to lose himself and acting as release from being alone. Chapin's interpretation is funny and desperate and over the top theatrical, as he describes the profound isolation of this gay man in a dress. After a severe beating, half dead, by chance he finds a home in a theatrical cafe and for a brief glorious time, fame for his originality,

Carla, once a runaway, wanted to be immortal like Marilyn Monroe. As embodied by Jessica Carolla, she's a confident beauty reminiscent of Studio 54. Carolla reveals her vulnerability, like a strip tease, discarding surface narcissism for a belief in transcendent beauty--an essence beyond the dreams of mortal women. It is a stunning revelation of character, more so than the casual facts of trading sex for career favors. But at 26, in her brave new present, only drag queens and Raquel Welch achieve her dethroned ideal.

Essentially, Kennedy's Children is a bar play, like O'Neil's Iceman. The timing of the monologues in this production energizes this play of loners seeking sanctuary together. Orchestrating this is the knowing bartender (Emily Battles), who punctuates the confessions, bringing the preferred alcoholic "poison" in the appropriate glass. She expresses skepticism or sympathy with a raised eyebrow, a glance at a table, the polishing of a glass.The bartender has heard the stories before. But the audience wants more. Congrats to Emily Battles and Erin Soler, who has made this play sing.

What does this play offer "Obama's children" in 2017? Unlike the youth in this play, progressive young people have had eight years of a kind of Camelot. That dream was also cut short, just as the way to the future seemed sure--climate control and universal health care, if not world peace. Technology hadn't created jobs for all, but new fields, including clean energy were opening. Unthought of, out of media sight, were those displaced by the evolving world economy. Retraining the casualties of relocated or obsolete industry wasn't on the horizon of the private or public sectors.

Oddly, our post Camelot story has parallels with the original Arthurian legends. Camelot is brought on by a sex scandal. Mordred, Arthur's illegitimate son, builds an army of the dispossessed to destroy the rule of law and rape and pillage to their heart's content. Education is overturned in the death of the monks, books burned and ignorance celebrated. The legend is said to explain the Dark Ages. 2017 is, like 1968-69, a turning point.The barbarians have again stormed the gates. Obama's "children" do seem to be up against a national strain of fascism, which is trying to legislate another Dark Ages. Our political and social center has again shifted. Will 2020  tell the new version of an old story?

In "Kennedy's Children" Rona talks about marching and demonstrating. Robert Patrick glossed it over in the play but activism had a decisive effect. When Lyndon Johnson looked out his window and saw the marchers--young and old, Democrats and Republicans, Vietnam Veterans Against the War, clergy--he said he knew it was time to get out of Vietnam. The Ronas and Marks (and everyone else) forged the first and only mass movement in American history to end an unpopular war.

No sex goddesses replaced Marilyn for women seeking an image of transcendent beauty, but when Gloria Steinem went undercover at the Playboy Club, exploitation of women was no longer the norm. Tony Kushner and many openly gay people have shown that sexual preference or ambiguity has little to do with an individual's worth and talent. And these norms of our society have to be established yet again. Hopefully, our nation will incorporate political and social idealism into the next version of our great experiment; perhaps an enlightened corporate state, an Athena among nations.

For more on Regeneration's upcoming season:


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