Joel Sandel Takes Center Stage in Main Street Theater's Virtual RFK

Joel Sandel stars in the title role in RFK.
Joel Sandel stars in the title role in RFK. Photo by Pin Lim/Forest Photography

It should be stated often and loudly, Houston is blessed by a host of the finest acting talent anywhere.

Naming them would be obscene, for I would surely forget to mention one of them and all hell would break loose. But standing center stage, with pennants flying, is most certainly Joel Sandel. Appearing frequently at Main Street Theater, his performances are eagerly awaited. He possesses intelligence, passion, and abiding humanity. There's a lot of justice in his acting; he makes it look so easy. He listens, no quick feat for any actor. He can be bracing and shiny as a smoking jacket in Noel Coward; circumspect yet deeply committed in Tom Stoppard; or deliciously campy in nun drag in Charles Busch. He loves to act, and it's always a pleasure to be in his company.

In Jack Holmes' RFK, streaming online from Main Street, Sandel is magnificent. Portraying a myth is difficult under any circumstance, but portraying one we grew up with and then lived through his assassination is well-nigh impossible and painfully sad. Sandel emits fire and light as Bobby Kennedy, catching all his imperfections, roughhouse wit, love of family, and deep grief and guilt over his brother's murder less than five years before. The complicated, ambitious man emerges. This being a one-person show, there are ample opportunities to become the peripheral characters in your own bio. Who wouldn't like to portray J. Edgar Hoover, George Wallace, or James Hoffa? They come in quick and exit just as fast, but as etched by Sandel, they're all gem-sized cameos.

Holmes, who starred in his one-man play when it premiered in 2005, weaves the Kennedy legacy as well as anyone. He begins with Bobby awaiting a call from President Johnson as to whether Johnson will ask him to be his running mate. From there, the play steadily backtracks to childhood, marriage to Ethel, their brood of children, memories of Jack and older brother Joe, who died as a fighter pilot in WWII, his crusading period as brother Jack's attorney general, his run for Senate from New York, his conflicting views on Vietnam and the Bay of Pigs, his dawning of social consciousness and inequality in America, his fateful run for President, his rock star image, his final moments in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. It's a kaleidoscope of a life, as if all of American history is bound in it, but Holmes and, most importantly, Sandel keep the focus. It's sprawling in its coverage, but Kennedy's life seems of a piece – a quilt embroidered with America's best hope and future dreams woven throughout.

Director Rebecca Greene Udden and virtual cinematographer Dwight Clark, with able assistance from sound designer Shawn W. St, John and projections by Peter Ton, give this streaming production much needed movement. We're out of the locked down Zoom look, and into a movie. (The impressionistic cloud background behind the ubiquitous desk, however, extends only so far. It works in closeup, but in wider shots, it resembles a hastily erected billboard.) There are dramatic cuts, judicious use of fades, and striking lighting effects. Period photos bring relevance and a necessary sense of time past. When Kennedy gives a speech or rehearses a political ad, we switch into black and white. Battling with bigots during Martin Luther King's freedom marches, the screen lights up a vivid red. Escaping a frenzied mob of supporters, Bobby rushes into frame out of breath, his shirt disheveled. “Those girl scouts were rough,” he laughs, as his public fame increases.

In these days of contentious political strife, civil unrest, and a virus that refuses to leave, RFK inspires. Even though we know what his fate will be, his words, especially while on that last campaign trail, lift us. Although slow to come around to the reasons for the protests in 1968 – he was for the Vietnam War before he was against it – Kennedy rose to the occasion and was on the verge of capturing the Democratic nomination when his life ended. His detractors, and there were many in Washington, accused him of hypocrisy and opportunism in coming late to the fight for social equality and his anti-war stance. Holmes places Kennedy with the angels. And Sandel, as Kennedy, stands tall next to him, complex and very human, a beacon in the darkness.

RFK is now streaming through October 25. To order tickets, visit $25 is suggested, but as Main Street says, “times are tough,” and will gladly accept $15.
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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover