THE TRAGEDY OF JFK (AS TOLD BY WM. SHAKESPEARE) Theatre Review
I come to praise Daniel Henning’s drama, not to bury it, for in this one-acter this conspiracy buff has let slip dogs of assassination. President Kennedy’s 1963 death in Dallas has inspired a number of artworks in various mediums (not to mention innumerable books, documentaries, etc., that purport to be nonfiction, although many conspiracy theorists believe 1964’s 888-page tome referred to as The Warren Commission Report is a propagandistic piece of pure government confabulation). The circumstances regarding JFK’s assassination remain so murky that, rather tellingly, Norman Mailer, the Great American Novelist, wrote the 1995 biography Oswald's Tale: An American Mystery.
Among the works of art per se pertaining to JFK’s liquidation are: Barbara Garson’s 1967 theatrical satire MacBird!; Don DeLillo’s 1988 Libra; Stephen Sondheim’s 1991 Assassins (recently rather excellently presented by California State University, Northridge’s theatre department); Oliver Stone’s 1991 JFK; and now we can add to this conspiratorial canon that has sought to go beyond the officially sanctioned story The Tragedy of JFK (as told by Wm. Shakespeare) - although a more precise subtitle might be: (as told by Wm. Shakespeare as related by Daniel Henning).
Henning, who directed, conceived and adapted (although the word adopted might be more exact?) The Tragedy of JFK is the founding artistic director of the outstanding Blank Theatre, which presented in 2011 two of the best political productions I’ve ever seen mounted on the L.A. boards, The Temperamentals and a revival of Marc Blitzstein’s suppressed 1937 classic of proletarian theatre, The Cradle Will Rock Theatre. In The Tragedy of JFK Henning does something very similar to what Garson did almost half a century ago with MacBird!, when she synthesized elements of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth with the Kennedy assassination and Pres. Johnson’s regime (remember that his wife’s famous nickname was “Lady Bird,” hence the title of Garson’s satire).
However, Henning has transposed the hit on JFK onto another of the Bard’s political tragedies dealing with assassinations of heads of state, Julius Caesar, and inserted other historical background and material (such as from Robert Caro’s 2012 biography on Johnson) in a multi-media work that selectively, judiciously, effectively, evocatively incorporates film clips, recorded audio, etc., with a live stage play acted out by a rather large cast. Henning opens The Tragedy of JFK in what should be an obviously necessary way for historical dramas produced for audiences in what Gore Vidal called “The United States of Amnesia.” All of the cast members introduce the characters they are depicting and give brief but vital info as to who they are. I mean, except for those who lived during the era or are historians, who really remember who the hell McGeorge Bundy (the National Security Advisor to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson played to nerdy perfection by stage stalwart Jacob Sidney) was?
Similarly, Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation devotes much of its first half illustrating the horrors of slavery, which informs Act II, explaining the causes and necessity of Nat Turner’s bloody uprising of the enslaved. On the other hand, many artists make the mistake of simply assuming auds know and recall, say, exactly why the Nazis were so reprehensible, without dramatizing Hitlerian atrocities onscreen or onstage, just taking as a given that the Gestapo, goosesteppers, gassers, etc., are automatically reviled by viewers. This may be so, but for some ticket buyers this lack of historical context (which, as said, should be dramatized) undercuts the power of polemics opposing them.
However, after its admittedly needed expository beginning, The Tragedy of JFK gets off to a slow start. Here, the play is not only quite talky but to make matters worse, Henning has transposed Shakespeare’s dialogue to the 1960s characters. Of course, the English spoken in Elizabethan England is quite different from that palavered by mid-20th century Americans, including the Texan twang delivered by Vice President-cum-President Lyndon B. Johnson (Time Winters’ Lone Star State elocution could be described as ambling iambic pentameter and he is excellent as a scheming, power mad LBJ later haunted by Kennedy, played plainly by Ford Austin).
The Tragedy of JFK is bogged down until the truly tragic events of Nov. 22, 1963 transpire in Dallas. The shooting’s multi-media mise en scene is well-executed and the play picks up from here. In Henning’s drama, the Kennedy hit is a coup d’etat engineered by a sordid assortment of unindicted co-conspirators. They include high level government officials, intelligence apparatchiks, businessmen and Mafioso. Among them are:
- J. Edgar Hoover (Tony Abatemarco - whom viewers may recognize from his many stage and 66 screen appearances, including a recurring role in ABC’s rather appropriately named How To Get Away With Murder - is a standout as the longtime FBI Director who faces forced retirement if JFK is reelected);
- the closeted J. Edgar’s purported boy toy Clyde Tolson (stage and screen actor Cris D’Annunzio, who also has a double role, portraying Texan oilman and suspected co-conspirator Clint Murchison, who gets a bit lost in the crowd and whose name seems to be misspelled in the playbill);
- Gen. Edwin Walker (the rightwing general Lee Harvey Oswald allegedly took a shot at shortly before Kennedy’s elimination and who is depicted with the appropriate swagger by former LAPD officer Jonny Walker, who has appeared in the FX Sons of Anarchy TV series);
- Allen Dulles (Group Repertory theater company member Bruce Nehlsen portrays the former CIA chief JFK fired after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of revolutionary Cuba);
- Carlos Marcello (Jerry Della Salla, who also pulls double duty as former Hollywood lobbyist Jack Valenti who became a LBJ aide, plays the Nawlins crime boss whom Kennedy refused to pardon, just as Julius Caesar refused to repeal the banishment of Publius Cimber in Act III, Scene I of Shakespeare’s Roman drama, despite Brutus’ imploring him to do so).
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(For some strange reason, Vietnam War architect Secretary of Defense Robert Strange McNamara - whom leftists derided as “Mac the Knife” - is missing in action.)
Some of the play’s conspirators’ motives are unclear to me and what may come as a complete surprise to others is that amongst this panoply of plotters, it is Lee Harvey Oswald (blandly played as a patsy by Brian Brennan) who is completely guiltless. In the Gospel according to Henning, not only is Oswald definitely not the Warren Commission Report’s fabled “lone gunman” who fired the mythic “magic bullet,” he had nothing to do with the Kennedy-killing cabal. Indeed, dialogue in The Tragedy of JFK asserts that a paraffin test administered by Dallas police on Oswald after he was apprehended did not reveal traces of gunshot residue on the purported rifleman. (In particular, assassination investigators Mark Lane, Jim Marrs and Carl Oglesby insisted the lack of gunpowder found on Oswald’s cheek proved he could not have committed the crime he maintained he was innocent of, but never lived long enough to stand trial for).
This came as news to me, as did the claim that Kennedy’s longtime personal secretary, the oddly ominously named Evelyn Lincoln (well-played by Roslyn Cohn), warned JFK not to travel to Dallas, Texas. (And although I don’t recall this is stated in the play, in her 1968 memoir, Lincoln claimed three days before the president’s murder in Dallas Kennedy told Lincoln he planned to replace the Texan Johnson with another running mate in 1964. Also unmentioned is the fact that in a listing she compiled of JFK murder suspects, Lincoln put “Lyndon” at the top of the list.)
In any case, this is among the sharpest transpositions from Shakespeare’s original to Henning’s “rewrite” and “update.” In Act I, Scene II of Julius Caesar, the Soothsayer warned the Roman leader to “Beware the ides of March.” His wife, Calpurnia, also had forebodings of Caesar’s demise. But the best interpolation from J.C. to JFK is the superimposition of Caesar’s general and right hand man Marc Antony onto that of Robert F. Kennedy, who was not only JFK’s brother but also his Attorney General.
In his oration at brother Jack’s funeral, Bobby (depicted by Emmy winner Chad Brannon) rather cleverly declares: “Friends, Americans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Kennedy, not to praise him.” In his echoing of Marc Antony’s speech RFK adeptly denounces the “honorable men” - including LBJ and J. Edgar - who slew the young president, while managing to heap praise upon his fallen brother and scorn upon his assassins. Brannon, who played Zander on the TV soap General Hospital, proves he is equally adept on the stage as he is on the tube and in this reviewer’s opinion, delivers The Tragedy of JFK’s best performance.
[PLOT - AND I MEAN PLOT - SPOILER ALERT!!!] In 1968 Bobby rises and runs for president to revenge and redeem his slain brother and their vision. Taking poetic license, Henning overlooks the fact that it is Sen. “Clean” Gene McCarthy who knocked LBJ out of the race for the White House, but never mind - it’s a play, not a documentary. Be that as it may, RFK along with Martin Luther King (Brett Collier joins the growing ranks of thespians who have portrayed that apostle of peace, who was far greater than both Kennedys combined), meet their violent fates. Henning’s rather gloomy, conspiratorial, pessimistic thesis is that behind the scenes, a cabal of jackals pulls the strings and rule America, at the barrel of a gun. Plots that will make you plotz, from Dallas’ Dealey Plaza to Memphis’ Lorraine Motel to L.A.’s Ambassador Hotel and beyond.
Like others who have bought into the whole Camelot mythos, Henning seems to believe that the Kennedy Brothers were these young, noble, reform-minded crusaders who sought the betterment of the lot of America’s underdogs and confronted the U.S. rightwing in doing so. The Tragedy of JFK has a whole Civil Rights subplot (although this is somewhat undercut in a mass demonstration scene, as it just so happens that most of the cast is Caucasian). But you don’t necessarily have to buy the Kennedy myth to come to the conclusion that the supposed lone gunmen who cut Jack and Bobby down in their prime were, indeed, acting as part of something much bigger than their own selves.
In imaginatively dramatizing this by drawing on Julius Caesar, Daniel Henning has truly created a Shakespearean tragedy for our own troubled time. Perhaps, as the GOP candidate for president publicly drops not-so-veiled hints that NRA-type gun extremists should shoot his Democratic opponent, it’s just a coinkydinky that the world premiere of The Tragedy of JFK and a revival of Assassins have been staged about a month before America’s presidential election is scheduled to take place. But, like, you know, conspiracy theorists don’t believe in mere coincidence…
The Blank Theatre is presenting The Tragedy of JFK (as told by Wm. Shakespeare) Fridays at 8:30 p.m., Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. through November 6 at Skylight Theatre, 1816½ N. Vermont Ave., L.A., CA 90027. Tickets may be purchased online or via phone at (323)661-9827.