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August 22, 2014
FringeNYC Review: Kunstler
Nick Wyman and Gillian Glasco in "Kunstler" at FringeNYC. Photo by Trix Rosen.
Nick Wyman and Gillian Glasco in "Kunstler" at FringeNYC. Photo by Trix Rosen.

Kunstler, by award winning Chicago playwright and author Jeffrey Sweet, tells the story of William Kunstler, a self-described “radical lawyer” and civil rights activist played brilliantly by Nick Wyman. The 90-minute play, presented at the Steve and Marie Sgouros Theatre as part of FringeNYC, takes place in 1995 at the end of Mr. Kunstler's life. In a New York City university lecture hall (think Columbia University), Kunstler speaks to a group of young aspiring lawyers. The audience is enrolled as the aspirants and delighted to be part of the action; a law student named Kerry (Gillian Glasco) facilitates the event and becomes Kunstler’s foil during parts of the lecture.

Mr. Sweet gives us a passionate portrait of a man seeking justice and civil rights for all. He focuses the bulk of the play on four of William Kunstler’s most famous trials: the audience listens to the astonishing details and events surrounding his defense of the Freedom Fighters in Mississippi in 1961, the Chicago Seven, the Attica prison rioters and the American Indian Movement members involved at Wounded Knee. Mr. Wyman, relishing his role, bounds about the stage and up into the audience as he describes the specifics of the trials. He gives quick brush stroke portrayals of key figures (including Black Panther leader Bobby Seale, Judge Julius Hoffman and Jerry Rubin) and causes the audience to gasp audibly at the twists and turns of cover ups, the misuse of the law during these trials and Kunstler's tactics to bring justice to the maligned and oppressed. Mr. Wyman perfectly captures the charisma of Kunstler, and with verbal dexterity and a twinkling eye, creates a captivating picture of a man consumed with justice for all, regardless of the crime.

Director Meagen Fay keeps the story moving briskly and yet still allows for poignant moments such as when Kunstler talks about taking responsibility for what you are “called to do”.  Where the play falters is in the final 30 minutes. Gillian Glasco projects a wide-eyed fierceness as Kerry, but is given very little to do. Kerry expresses her disapproval regarding some of the clients Kunstler chooses to defend (like the mob boss John Gotti), provoking an argument between the two of them that seems disconnected from what came before. The epilogue where Kerry speaks directly to the audience is fascinating, but not well integrated into the rest of the play.  (It is also somewhat confusing, since the audience is no longer enrolled as law students.)

Kunstler is an inspiring piece of theater. When the lights come up, there is a collective buzz as audience members remember their William Kunstler era stories and leave the theater to the strains of Jimi Hendrix playing The Star Spangled Banner.

The New York International Fringe Festival continues through August 24. For more review of FringeNYC shows, click here.

Through August 23 at the Steve and Marie Sgouros Theatre.

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Written by: Navida Stein
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