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Who Killed JFK?: Engrossing 'Assassination Theater' Purports to Know the Main Actors (and Directors) -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Assassination Theater
a theatrical investigation
by Hillel Levin
Museum of Broadcast Communications, Chicago
Thru January 31
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The assassination of President John F. Kennedy, how exactly it was carried out, who was behind it and possible conspiracies & coverups, has probably been the single biggest societal mystery of my lifetime.

This despite the slaying having taken place November 22, 1963, nearly 5 years before I was born.

To varying degrees and depths, the JFK assassination has been a subject I have explored from time to time since I was young. (Though far more frivolous, the "Paul is Dead" rumor & clues on Beatles albums is likely the other matter of near-lifelong fascination that I have intermittently "investigated.")

I can't recall if I did much digging during college, but around the time Oliver Stone's JFK movie was released in late 1991, I was living in Los Angeles and had a deeply-interested friend with whom I had considerable dialogue about the movie's and other suppositions. We even attended a presentation given by one of myriad writers of conspiracy theory books; it may have been David Lifton, author of Best Evidence, but I can't swear to it. (I mainly remember noticing Graham Nash sitting in front of me, and saying hello to him afterwards.)

In 2003, I took a trip to Texas and went to the Sixth Floor Museum at the former Texas School Book Depository in Dallas, from which Lee Harvey Oswald fired at the President. I also wandered around the grassy knoll, spoke to some hardcore conspiracy theorists--I don't mean this term in any derisive way, just as shorthand for those who have researched and believe in scenarios beyond those endorsed by the Warren Commission--and brought home a CD-ROM of material that again kept me once quite intrigued for awhile.

Reading Stephen King's 11/22/63 novel surmising a man able to go back in time with hopes of stopping Oswald made the assassination front of mind again in late 2011, as did the 50th anniversary in 2013.

But what brought me to Assassination Theater--being performed at but not under the auspices of Chicago's Museum of Broadcast Communications--wasn't so much an abiding curiosity as a scintillating 4-star (out of 4) review by the Chicago Tribune's Theater Critic, Chris Jones.

Jones' review, and the Assassination Theater website, spell out a good part of the premise, which involves an investigative journalist named Hillel Levin--who is the show's writer and one of its characters (as adroitly embodied by Michael Joseph Mitchell)--that prominent Chicago mobsters were integral to the assassination's planning and execution.

I believe it best to be circumspect about any specific suppositions and revelations--though it bills itself as "a theatrical investigation" and feels akin to a documentary, the show is dramatically engrossing as essentially a murder mystery--but largely via intelligence from an FBI agent named Zack Shelton (well-played onstage by Mark Ulrich) Levin details a purported confession by a grassy knoll shooter and names the (non-Chicago) mobsters he believes most likely culpable for ordering that the president be killed.

In keeping with the show's title, various "actors" and motivations are explored, not only regarding the killing, but almost instantaneous attempts to cover it up and keep damaging (possible) truths from reaching the public and/or American enemies, via the autopsy, Warren Commission report and subsequent investigations.

Though a rather lucid and thorough case seems to be made, and presumed areas of skepticism addressed, I am trying to hew to reviewing Assassination Theater as a piece of entertainment, and not inherently as a judgment of its findings, reasoning or how well (or not) it solves the crime of the century.

For over its 2 hours of stage time, I was rather captivated.

Not only are Mitchell and Ulrich superb, so too are Ryan Kitley and Martin Yurek in characterizing a multitude of interview subjects and others, including investigators, medical examiners, authors and direct or indirect perpetrators.

Writing this a day later, it's almost boggling to think I saw just 4 people onstage (plus the real Hillel Levin, who holds a post-show Q&A on Thursday nights).

All of my pseudo-explorations of the Kennedy assassination--the first one, though RFK's death is also broached in this show--have left me rather dubious of the official Warren Commission conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, in the planning and in the moment, and that Jack Ruby did likewise in killing Oswald two days after the President's death.

According to stats cited at the beginning of the play, 61% of Americans believe likewise…and 77% don't believe we'll ever know the full truth.

Levin seems to conclude that his culprits should somehow be brought to justice--or at least, light, as few if any are still living or long will be--and that as American citizens we should demand this.

He clearly did exhaustive research and makes a cogent and compelling argument rather grippingly--even if you don't buy the underlying supposition, you should still be highly entertained--but I imagine even Levin wouldn't guarantee 100% accuracy, and the show cites some possible holes and inconsistencies.

So while he may well have validity in taking to task the Chicago mob, the U.S. government (for the cover-up) and even authors who have proffered "Oswald acting alone" conclusions--Vincent Bugliosi and Gerald Posner high among them, though the latter may have only been mentioned in the post-show discussion--I imagine a similarly well-written, performed and seemingly reasoned piece offering alternate conclusions might seem just as convincing.

And while this is an extremely well-crafted piece of both investigation and research, the shreds of evidence and various players are presented so rapid-fire that Assassination Theatre becomes a bit hard to follow and digest. It would well be wise to have a nap or a considerable amount of caffeine before finding your seat.

But once you do, amid the Museum of Broadcast Communications' Radio Hall of Fame and famous dummies--Charlie McCarthy among them--you'll be in for quite the anatomy of a murder.

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