|Casey McKinnon and Ford Austin - All Photos: Rick Baumgartner|
By Joe Straw
Casually having coffee in a diner, he let some information slip; as if he knowingly let anything slip in his life.
“The army wouldn’t give me the security clearances I needed to get up to another level – cause of I have distant relatives from the Soviet Union.”
The time, circa 1967, and he was just a corporal, an army office grunt.
He was just the kind of outspoken man, with an I.Q. tested over 175, the army loved to send to Vietnam.
Never mind that he just adopted five kids and needed to remain in the states for a year to finalize the adoption. They don’t care who they send.
And, while there, in Vietnam, some strange eye opening papers brush across his desk. Strange little items like military contracts with Lady Bird Johnson’s holding company name on them.
After Vietnam, he was flown to Alaska for debriefing. He was told not to mention what he had seen and he kept that secret for over 40 years.
Vietnam was very profitable, for some. LBJ, et al. – let’s face it somebody has to win in a war. - Narrator
Walking into the Skylight Theatre in Hollywood is like walking through a cavern with a high ceiling, the vomitorium of no return. After going in you come out a different person.
The Blank Theatre presents the World Premiere of The Tragedy of JFK (as told by Wm. Shakespeare) conceived, adapted and directed by Daniel Henning at the Skylight Theatre through October 29th, 2016. Produced by Daniel Henning, Bree Pavey and Noah Wyle.
Daniel Henning, the writer and director, stood outside the theatre door, busy as usual, although he took a moment to thank patrons for coming. He is always charming, and a bit thinner than one remembers, possibly from wrangling this large cast. And he appeared appreciably nervous, unable to comprehend of what the night would bring.
The Tragedy of JFK (as told by Wm. Shakespeare) by Mr. Henning is what Los Angeles theatregoers crave. Henning, an ingenious perfectionist, offers a new voice and ties it into the words of William Shakespeare of an event that is etched in our collective memories.
Henning rides his creative theatrical horse on this day bringing nourishment to those who crave more from their 99-seat venues. He does this by conveying his rich ideas and perspectives imploring theatregoers to take his hand and take the ride.
William Shakespeare died 347 years before the Kennedy assassination. One cannot attest to time travel, certainly some men have peaked into the future. But one would guess that Shakespeare, in fact, did not see this coming.
But, then again, there were some strange similarities.
I’ll not tell you on which play Mr. Henning adapted, that would spoil the fun. But, if you are a fan of William Shakespeare you will get it almost immediately.
The lone gunman theory haunts many Americans. Visions of the immaculate pristine bullet in the car shine as bright as the televisions, which broadcast Oswald, being gunned down by Jack Ruby (Rubenstein).
There were too many bad actors covering up on a nonsensical stage in Dallas, Texas. An average Joe could see that visual events did not project a truth, and still don’t. You don’t have to look too far to know who had the most to gain.
Lyndon Baines Johnson (Time Winters) was an honorable man, so were they all, all honorable men.
Aside from LJB, who had the most to gain?
J. Edgar Hoover (Tony Abatemarco) was not a friend of Kennedy as both JFK and RFK wanted him out. Knowing this, Hoover wanted to keep his job, by any and all means necessary.
Carlos Marcello (Jerry Della Salla) was a member of an organized crime family in New Orleans. He pleaded the 5th under questioning by Senator John F. Kennedy and Robert R. Kennedy’s congressional committee investigating organized crime. Marcello was deported once but found his way back to the states.
Gov. John Connally (Jonathon Lamer) wanted a legacy, more power, and a significant bond with LBJ to achieve that power. Things never turn out the way one wants.
Allen Dulles (Bruce Nehlsen) was the former head of the CIA. Dulles was responsible for the 1954 Guatemalan coup d’état, the overthrow of Iran’s elected government, the U-2 program, the Bay of Pigs Invasion, and the Algiers putsch against Charles de Gaulle. (One catastrophe after another.) Kennedy would have no more and accepted Dulles resignation. Dulles was on the Warren Commission and his job was to steer the investigation in Johnson’s favor.
McGeorge Bundy (Jacob Sidney) had a lot to gain since Kennedy wanted out of Vietnam and Bundy did not. Bundy was considered the chief architect of the Vietnam War.
General Edwin Walker (Johnny Walker) was a man with an ostentatious stare and a chest full of metals, a ranking staunch conservative and responsible for handing out leaflets with JFK’s photo on it titled “Wanted for Treason.”
Did William Shakespeare impart a truth of the events leading to that faithful day in Dealey Plaza? One cannot be sure but I can’t think of a better idea or a better way to spend an evening, than to venture out on this night to receive that truth.
So, watch the flickering light, the sputtering 8mm frames of the Zapruder film and see what this theatrical illumination has to offer.
Dealey Plaza sets the place, a rather ominous place that will live in infamy and it lingers on stage throughout the setting. Set Designer Sydney Russell creates a nice symbolic message that lingers long after the audience has left. It is a place where the memories don’t change and the spirited shadows move from place to space.
The shadows lingering there are JFK (Ford Austin), RFK (Chad Brannon), LBJ, J. Edgar Hoover, Clyde Tolson (Cris D’Annunzio), Jackie Kennedy (Casey McKinnon), Lady Bird Johnson (Susan Denaker), Evelyn Lincoln (Kelie McIven), Allen Dulles, Clint Muchison (again Cris D’Annunzio), Carlos Marcello, Gov. John Connally, Jack Valenti (again Jerry Della Salla), Martin Luther King, Jr. (Brett Collier) Lee Harvey Oswald (Brian Brennan), McGeorge Bundy, and General Edwin Walker.
The actors came out and introduced themselves and each bore a striking resemblance to the character they portrayed. Some wore different hats and explained the characters they would be playing. They spoke in modern day language and there was no iambic pentameter at this moment.
A short while later…
“Beware of Dallas.” Evelyn Lincoln
|L - R - Time Winters, Bruce Nehlsen, and Tony Abatemarco|
In the world of politics one name sounds just as good as another, “JFK” versus “LBJ” as J. Edgar Hoover would tell it as he moves to the direction of the “aw shucks” Vice President Johnson, a man with open eyes and seething political ambition.
And as the President is giving a speech…
“Can you see your face?” J. Edgar Hoover
The conversation must be handled delicately but the ambitious LBJ is no fool.
“What dangers would you lead me?” - LBJ
J. Edgar Hoover does his best to side with LBJ, to impart his wisdom about a man, JFK, who is only a man and like all men must move onto a ghostly plain. Hoover downplays the President’s life as extraordinary, and offers LBJ a delicious barbeque plate of political fodder.
“Why should that name be sounded more than yours?
Write them together, yours is as fair a name:
Sound them, it doth become the mouth as well;
Weigh them, it is as heavy; conjure with ‘em.” – J. Edgar Hoover
Events play into the hands of the ambitious LBJ. He sees the value of J. Edgar Hoover’s words, knows that Kennedy suffers from a number of ailments, including Addison’s disease, and a rare autoimmune ailment. LBJ is getting old and he knows that he must make his move, or let the others make his move, knowing that he will be too old for the presidency should Kennedy run again.
“Let it be who it is.” – J. Edgar Hoover
“But O grief, where has this led me?” – LBJ
Hoover arranges to come to LBJ’s house late that night with the co-conspirators. Waiting with drink in hand, LBJ steadies his nerves.
The men enter and LBJ asks each one of them for their oath of allegiance.
Lady Bird Johnson quietly steps out of the bedroom to find out what was going on. LBJ brushes her off and tells her to go back to bed.
|Chad Brannon as RFK - Center, Casey McKinnon as Jackie Kennedy - Center right|
This is really a very remarkable cast. The actors create an enormous life with little props or set pieces. It is an amazing way to create under the symbolic looming image of Dealey Plaza. And each actor, in his or her own little way, brings about a historical naturalness.
Tony Abatemarco is remarkable as J. Edgar Hoover. His voice is strong, his intentions are clear, and he has an instinctual way about the character that is extremely clever. Abatemarco packs a tremendous amount of history into that character.
Ford Austin is John F. Kennedy, a rather robust Kennedy, in public persona, but adding a personal touch that gives Kennedy a hint of the maladies that affects him. (e.g. walking up the steps, gingerly.) Austin displays Kennedy with grand style, charm, and a broad smile. The personal fault with character is that he listens to a stranger interpreting his dreams rather than his wife. That gets him into trouble for which he is never able to recover. Austin is terrific.
Chad Brannon is surprising as Robert F. Kennedy. The voice and mannerism all work to perfection. The play suggests that RFK could do little after the assassination but to play along and that he would be taken care of later in his political career. RFK fell into that trap, gave the “Friends, Romans, and Countrymen” speech and made a number of political enemies after that. Brannon is an astonishing actor with a terrific range to his craft.
One can never get enough of the Zapruder film so when the film was playing I lost sight of Brian Brennan playing Lee Harvey Oswald. I can’t tell you if he picked up the rifle on stage and aimed. And ultimately, it was part of the confusion on that day. Earlier, LBJ gives Oswald the gun, probably a metaphor, while Oswald is asleep in what appears to be the LBJ’s porch. If there was anything needed in this production, it was the cleaning up of this relationship. Was it a metaphor? Maybe we need to take this a little further.
Brett Collier does an admirable job as Martin Luther King, Jr. The song and the march were outstanding. How King fits into the Kennedy assassination, one is not really sure.
Cris D’Annunzio plays Clyde Tolson, J. Edgar Hoover’s confidant and Clint Muchinson, Sr., a Texas-based oil magnate and political operative. D’Annunzio has a great look and was superb in the roles offering a wonderful history to the characters. Watching this actor in others plays, this has to be the finest work to date.
In the broad scheme of things, I didn’t get the connection of the character Carlos Marcello, an organized crime boss, portrayed by Jerry Della Salla and how the character fits into the picture. Salla presents a character with strength, someone who would pledge allegiance, and carry out the job. But, how it all fits, is one’s guess. Also Salla played Jack Valenti. His face is clearly on the photo on the plane when LBJ was sworn in. The two characters, both Italian, represent strength and love. Marcello was the muscle and Valenti was the love and making the distinction for both roles would only add flavor to the roles.
Susan Denaker was excellent as Lady Bird Johnson. Denaker provided a rich history to the character and was specific in her characterization. She was the smarter one of the two and the one with the most money. Denaker made the most of Lady Bird Johnson, being an adoring wife, but letting her husband know who controls the strings.
John Knight was an Aide and Pollster. Roslyn Cohn has a very distinctive look and did well on this very night.
Jonathan Lamer did well as Gov. John Connally filling out his role. It is possible that we don’t see the true nature of Connally’s political ambition in this portrayal. It might be something to an already nice performance.
Kelie McIver was Evelyn Lincoln, Kennedy’s secretary, who warns Kennedy about going to Dallas. Lincoln is the soothsayer. McIver has a wonderful strength on stage, never giving up to reach her objective. Her performance was subtle at times and her craft exhibited wonderful execution.
Casey McKinnon is the apotheosis of Jackie Kennedy, and she is equally stunning. Her craft is evenly exquisite as she executes with a precision rarely seen in a 99-seat venue down to the wisp of hair that falls near her eyes in the burial scene.
Bruce Nehlsen portrays Allen Dulles. Kennedy fired him and later LBJ hired him as one of the commissioners of the Warren Commission. So Dulles was an enemy but had little do on stage.
Jacob Sidney is always delightful and carries a strong presence and sophistication in the character. Sidney is playing McGeorge Bundy considered the Chief Architect of the Vietnam War and also involved in the Bay of Pigs. Good buds with Allen Dulles. Bundy had much to gain from the assassination. It is a marvelous role for Sidney and well done.
John Walker is wide-eyed General Edwin Walker who wanted Kennedy arrested for treason, in fact he handed out leaflets during Kennedy’s final motorcade ride. The purpose of the role, I suspect, was a diversion from the matter at hand, the Kennedy assassination.
Time Winters is excellent as Lyndon B. Johnson. His art is an afflatus to the manner of his craft. One can’t down play the aw-shucks manner in character as the Vice President, the shuffling of shoes, and the inebriated manner with which he conducts business. All part of the business that is inspiring to watch in an actor. Winters provides a character rich in history, a backstory that shows the intimate details of his every flaw, and there were many flaws, and he also included Johnson’s political acumen for which he famously controlled the nation after the assassination. Wow! This was a terrific performance.
|L - R Brett Collier and Chad Brannon|
Daniel Henning, the director, is a master craftsman; little time is wasted on stage. The characters, mannerism, and objectives play to perfection. But, the Civil Rights protests which played a significant role in the ‘60s moved the production in another direction without seeing how we can tie the additional tragedies the assassination of Martin King, Jr. April 4th, 1968, and Robert Kennedy June 6th, 1968 to the people who may have been responsible for the death of John F. Kennedy. How do we tie Johnson and Hoover to those deaths as well? (While we are on the subject of doing that.) I enjoyed the haunting figure of JFK over the shoulder to LBJ. It makes for such a nice picture of guilt. Add RFK, and MLK to the mix – center stage during the phone conversation – and that guilt intensifies. It forces LJB to not seek re-election. Mr. Henning gives a hint of what he believes when one wishes for something a little more definitive, but that’s probably something we will never get.
There is an alternate cast that I did not see but everyone who works deserves a mention and here they are:
Stephen Anglin Jr. (Martin Luther King, Jr.)
James Babbin (John Connally/Allen Dulles/McGeorge Bundy)
Dane Bowman (John F. Kennedy)
Elliott Davis (Lee Harvey Oswald)
Vince Donvito (Carlos Marcello/Jack Valenti)
Don Lucas (Clint Murchinson/Clyde Tolson/Gen. Edward Walker)
Stasha Surdyke (Jackie Kennedy)
Greg Winter (Robert Kennedy)
Other crewmembers that did outstanding work are as follows:
Brandon Baruch – Lighting Designer
Naila Aladdin Sanders – Costume Designer Assistant
Judi Lewin – Hair/Wig/Makeup Designer
Warren Davis – Sound Designer
Mike Hawley – Assistant Director/Dialect Coach/Music Director
Ken Werther – Public Relations
Katherine Hunter-Blyden – Marketing Director
Erica S. Bream – Casting Director (Gathering a rush of recognized talent – an outstanding job.)
Cara Chute Rosenbaum – Casting Director (ditto from above)
Cynthia Aquino – Associate Producer
Amanda Faucher – Associate Producer
Shah Granville – Associate Producer.
Run! Run! Run! And take someone who loves the 1960s!
Or Phone: 323-661-9827
The Skylight Theatre
1816 1/2 N. Vermont Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90027