Jackie Kennedy believed Lyndon Johnson killed her husband, and so apparently does The Bard Of Avon in The Tragedy Of JFK (as told by Wm. Shakespeare), Daniel Henning’s devilishly clever “Julius Caesar Redux,” now getting an exciting (and sure to be controversial) World Premiere at Henning’s The Blank Theatre.
A prologue (written in contemporary vernacular) introduces The Tragedy Of JFK’s cast of characters one by one, beginning with Caesar stand-in JFK, Jack’s brother Bobby (Shakespeare’s Marc Antony), VP LBJ (Brutus), and wives Jackie and Lady Bird (Calpurnia and Portia).
Stepping in for Cassius as assassination plot ringleader is infamous FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, joined by CIA director Allen Dulles (Casca), Texas oil magnate (and smear whiz) Clint Murchison Sr. (Cinna), national security advisor McGeorge Bundy (Decius Brutus), and Mafia chief Carlos Marcello (Metellus Cimber), each of whom has his own reason for wanting John F. Kennedy dead, chiefly among them JFK foe Hoover’s desire to remain FBI boss for life.
Kennedy’s personal secretary Evelyn Lincoln is the soothsayer who warns her boss to “Beware Dallas” and Martin Luther King takes the place of Julius Caesar’s adopted son Octavius Caesar, with John Bircher Edwin Walker, Texas Governor John Connally, and JBJ special assistant Jack Valenti also involved in the events leading up to and following November 22, 1963.
As for J. Edgar’s “constant companion” Clyde Tolson, he too has his Julius Caesar counterpart in Cassius’s servant Pindarus, and last but most definitely not least, taking the place of Brutus’s attendant Lucius is Lee Harvey Oswald, about whom Henning’s prologue states unequivocally that “paraffin tests and eyewitness accounts make it virtually impossible that he fired the shots that killed Kennedy.”
Streamlining Shakespeare’s original text to about half its length while inserting key bits of actual LBJ-era speech (the newly inaugurated President’s post-assassination address to congress and the announcement of his decision to “neither seek nor accept” his party’s nomination in ‘68 are in Johnson’s own words), Henning has created as unique a Shakespeare adaptation as you’re likely to have seen, one that he has directed with passion and flair.
Much of the pleasure in seeing Time Winters’ commanding JBJ, Susan Denaker’s steadfast Lady Bird, Ford Austin’s charismatic JFK, Casey McKinnon’s radiant Jackie, Chad Brannon’s feisty RFK, and Brett Collier’s imposing MLK (all of them quite splendid) is hearing Shakespeare’s iconic (albeit occasionally tweaked) words spoken in these real-life figures’ own distinctive voices, whether it’s Bostonian John Kennedy declaring that “cowards die many times before their deaths,” or fellow New Englander Bobby’s “I come to bury Jack, not to praise him,” or Johnson’s Texas-twangy “I do fear the people choose Kennedy for their king,” or any number of others.
Adding impact are newsreel events—the arrival in Dallas, the ill-fated motorcade ride, the assassination itself—recreated both live on stage and in historical videos projected on scenic designer Sydney Russell’s no-frills arched set.
There’s not a weak link in Henning’s cast. Tony Abatemarco’s reptilian J. Edgar proves a particular standout, with stellar featured turns delivered by Brian Brennan (Oswald), Cris D’Annunzio (Murchison and Tolson), Jerry Della Salla (Marcello and Valenti), Jonathon Lamer (Connally), Kelie McIver (Evelyn Lincoln), Bruce Nehlsen (Dulles), Jacob Sidney (Bundy), and Jonny Walker (Edwin Walker), plus cameo gems by Roslyn Cohn and John Knight as aides and pollsters.
Brandon Baruch’s lighting design is striking, Naila Aladdin Sanders’ costumes are spot-on flashbacks to an era and to those wearing them as is Judi Lewin’s hair, wig, and makeup design, with Warren Davis’s dramatic sound design providing added punch.
Mikey Hawley is assistant director.
The Tragedy Of JFK (as told by Wm. Shakespeare) is produced by Henning, Bree Pavey, and Noah Wyle. Cynthia Aquino, Amanda Faucher, and Shah Granville are associate producers. Chris Hoffman is production stage manager and cast members Knight and Cohn are assistant stage managers. Natalya Shahinyan is costume assistant.
Casting is by Erica S. Bream and Cara Chute Rosenbaum. Alternate cast members Stephen Anglin Jr., James Babbin, Dane Bowman, Cohn, D’Annunzio, Vince DonVito, Lamer, Don Lucas, Stasha Surdyke, and Greg Winter take the stage at specially scheduled performances on October 23 and 29.
Whether The Tragedy Of JFK (as told by Wm. Shakespeare) is actual fact or mere theory, I’ll leave it to those more versed in assassination minutiae to determine. As exciting, compelling theater at once classic and cutting-edge, Henning’s strikingly original adaptation more than earns its applause.
The Skylight Theatre, 1816 N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles.
October 9, 2016
Photos: Rick Baumgartner