At first I thought that it wouldn’t be fair that I should be writing a review of Assassination Theater. After all I love history and I am a former criminal investigator so it was right up my alley. I thought it would be rather like a Republican doing a review of the Republican National Convention but then I thought who better to be able to critique such a novel approach to presenting Hillel Levin’s and retired FBI agent Zach Shelton’s theories regarding the perpetrators of the assassination of arguably one of our most beloved presidents.
Hillel Levin, the playwright, is an investigative reporter and has written extensively about organized crime to include two books, When Corruption was King and In with The Devil. He also has written two major articles on The Outfit for Playboy Magazine, “Boosting the Big Tuna”(2007) and “How the Outfit Killed JFK” (2010).
Mr. Levin made himself available to the audience both before and after the production and I took the opportunity to speak with him briefly before the production. I had attended grade school with the nephew of mob boss, Tony Accardo who is a prominent figure in the production as well as conducting some research on another author’s project that intersects Levin’s work albeit peripherally. He was extremely gracious, very easy to speak with you could tell instantly how much he truly is dedicated to sharing this view of the assassination with his audiences.
The venue was very intimate being a theater on the second floor of the Museum of Broadcast Communications at 360 N. State Street. I had not been to the Museum in over 20 years and this was a new location for me. The stage was small but ample for 4 actors and minimal scenery and props. The majority of the scenery was taken care of by three large projection or television screens that would show photos of persons of interest based on where the story was at the time.
Let’s just say that the story was the primary focus of the performance and quite a story it was. For approximately 2 ½ hours with a 10 minute or so intermission audience members became part of the JFK investigation. By that I mean that audience members (or at least I) felt like they were detectives who were being brought up to speed on a long term investigation that they were just now becoming a part of.
As a history geek and a lover of a good conspiracy story, I was amazed not only of the acting of Michael Joseph Mitchell but of the seemingly endless amount of detail that he had to have memorized before even thinking about trying to portray Hillel Levin who was in the audience as well (no pressure). Since I don’t really know Hillel Levin personally, I can’t speculate as to how well he portrayed him but I can say that I forgot that he was playing a part and truly started believing that he was the writer.
Mark Ulrich, who played Levin’s retired FBI associate, Zack Shelton, played a very believable investigator. He reminded me of about half a dozen real-life detectives that I had worked with.
I also cannot say enough about the versatility of actors Ryan Kitley and Martin Yurek. I actually lost track of the number of characters that they played throughout the performance ranging in age from 20 to 90 years old with no makeup and only very slight costume changes which might include a set of glasses or a hat! Some of the characters they jumped in and out of included Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy, J. Edgar Hoover, Senator Arlen Specter, Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren, Lee Harvey Oswald, Jack Ruby, and a plethora of agents, cops, hoods and henchmen.
The play is not for everyone however. If you have difficulty keeping up with a fast paced story with a multitude of interconnected characters then you might want to wait until there is a written version of the story first or at the very least read a couple other books or watch a couple of other documentaries on the JFK assassination so you can keep up with the story.
From the opening scene the audience is bombarded (in a good way) with names, dates, places, people, groups, organizations, military units, government agencies, law enforcement units, cops, crooks, hit-men, politicians, doctors, photos, documents and a partridge in a pear tree!
And if that is not challenging enough for a playwright, actor and especially a director (Kevin Christopher Fox did an amazing job!) they managed to weave it all together in order to show very convincingly that major players in organized crime including Chicago’s own Tony Accardo and Sam Giancana had the motive, means and opportunity to commit and get away with the most high profile murder to hit the nation since the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
The only thing that detracted from the telling of the story, which may or may not be in control of the production itself, was the lack of adequate ventilation. At times the warm temperature and lack of air flow became a little bothersome.
I would highly recommend this production to anyone with a love of American history or conspiracy theories but really believe that all Americans at least need to familiarize themselves with the evidence presented because this is no work of fiction.
The show runs through November 7th at the Museum of Broadcast Communications at 360 N. State Street and more information is available at the Assassination Theater Website.
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