Guest Columns

HUDSON: LOCAL PRODUCTIONS HAVE FLAIR

A Portrait of Robert Kennedy and War Horse are great entertainment

Contributing Columnist

A Portrait of Robert Kennedy by Jack Holmes. Directed by Terry Dodd and playing through February 24 at the Vintage Theatre, Aurora. War Horse adapted by Nick Stafford and the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa from the children’s book by Michael Morpurgo. A National Theatre of Great Britain production, directed by Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr, staged at the Denver Center’s Buell Theater and playing through January 20.

At 5:30 a.m. on June 7, 1968, I was standing in morning formation at the U. S. Navy’s Officer Candidate School parade ground in Newport, Rhode Island. A bone-chilling breeze was blowing in off Narragansett Bay. We 120 day ‘wonders’ were cut off from all contact with the outside world — no radios, no TVs, no newspapers. We lived in a bubble of shouted orders, strict discipline and double time marches. I immediately noticed the American flag was fluttering at half-staff and inexplicably sensed that yet another assassination had occurred. Shortly thereafter, the Officer of the Day announced that Robert Kennedy had been fatally shot a few hours earlier in Los Angeles. Martin Luther King had been cut down just a few weeks before I reported to OCS. I couldn’t escape a dispiriting feeling that American public life was spinning out of control.

I possessed no information regarding the progress of the Democratic primary campaign — who had been winning, or who was losing and where. But, it was now evident that Bobby Kennedy would never captain the Democratic ticket. Instead, he was destined for Arlington National Cemetery and a resting place near his brother Jack. The Vintage Theatre Company’s one-man show examines the five years that separate their two assassinations. James O’Hagan Murphy ably captures both the accent and the political combativeness of Robert Francis Kennedy. His animosity for Lyndon, Johnson, J. Edgar Hoover and Jimmy Hoffa sizzles in memory. A political hatchet man for his older brother, the President, Bobby is gradually transformed into a spokesman for those at the margins of American life.

James O’Hagan Murphy as Robert Kennedy.
Photo courtesy Vintage Theatre

Attempting to condense his personal journey into two hours of reflection proves a daunting task. If you actually recall those years, you can’t help but be struck by what has been omitted; yet, for those too young to remember, Murphy provides a portrait that can serve as a primer regarding the aspirations as contrasted with the infamous excesses of the 60s. What would the course of American political history have taken if Bobby Kennedy, rather than Richard Nixon, had been elected President in 1968? Much of that possibility is hinted at during imagined conversations between Bobby and his deceased brother, whom he respectfully addresses as “The President.” Director Terry Dodd showcases the positive aspects of political careers — their frequent dedication to goals larger than themselves and a genuine concern for the welfare of others. These are fundamental democratic values we seem to have lost touch with in the clamorous political rancor of recent years. This show reminds us that it can be different.

★★★

Once every fifteen or twenty years, a theatrical production arrives that forces us to re-imagine the stories that can be told on stage. Julie Taymor achieved this with her masks in The Lion King, and now War Horse arrives with its larger than life puppets that command the stage as living, heaving, prancing, rearing horses every bit as real as the actors that surround them. It takes a three person team to animate Joey and Topthorn. These puppets weigh 120 pounds each and are fabricated from aluminum tubing, enclosed in a fabric skin. Eight feet high and ten feet long, they can be and are ridden by members of the cast. The required suspension of disbelief comes quickly as the horses display distinct personalities.

The storyline is simple and well known. A young boy in Devon has his horse conscripted for service in the trench warfare of World War I. After a few years, that boy grows into a young man, who is in turn conscripted. Horse and rider are reunited on the battlefield. But, not before Joey, the war horse of the title, assists on both sides of the trenches. There are songs and music that move this plot along. The human actors take second place to the equine heroes. The Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa has accomplished something amazing. Until you have witnessed their skills, you wouldn’t imagine it was possible to fabricate creations that would allow you to identify with and care about their fate. It’s a unique experience, unlikely to be replicated elsewhere. Try and catch it!

Columnist Miller Hudson extends his editorial commentary this week to two local dramatic productions, each with its own political angle.