“If you think Oswald acted alone, you’re nuts.”
I glanced over my shoulder. The man sitting behind us on the Metra looked like an extra from American Hustle. Dressed in a 1970s powder-blue suit a size too small, with a few blonde hairs plastered across his sweaty forehead, his tiny, shifty eyes had a glazed look to them. Drunk? High? Who knew. Either way, he was determined to horn in on our conversation about the JFK assassination.
I tried on a smile. Maybe if he got a chance to say his piece he’d leave us alone. “So who do you think did it, then?” I asked, half-fearing the answer.
He took a deep breath and proceeded to launch into a giant, rambling, and pretty incoherent explanation that implicated everyone from the CIA and LBJ to the Mafia and Cuba…
As his words washed over me, I thought about how he’s not alone: according to a 2011 Gallup poll, 61% of Americans believe in some kind of conspiracy theory regarding JFK’s death. The list of potential suspects is long, but another Gallup poll indicates that most Americans place the blame equally (13% for each) on two different sources: the Federal government and the Mafia.
Investigative journalist and author Hillel Levin agrees with the latter choice. His new play, Assassination Theater—which he calls a “theatrical investigation” of the JFK assassination—outlines how he thinks the Mob killed JFK. More specifically, he fingers the Chicago Outfit. Not only did they plan the assassination in detail, he says, but they provided the hit men (Oswald was simply one of many, while the man who made the fatal shot currently sits in an Illinois prison) and even told Jack Ruby to murder Oswald.
This isn’t the first time Levin has written about the Chicago mob. Back in 2007, he wrote an article for Playboy called “Boosting the Big Tuna,” which covered how a group of low-level thieves attempted to steal from the home of Tony Accardo, Outfit kingpin—and paid with their lives. This article, says Levin, was the original inspiration for Assassination Theater. As he said in an interview with Patch.com, “The origins of this show go back to 2007…After the article was published, I was approached by Zack Shelton, one of the FBI agents featured in the story, who asked, ‘Why don’t you do the real story about the mob?’ When I asked what that was, he replied, ‘How they killed JFK.” “For me,” Levin went on to say, “the assassination was a kind of theater, staged to put the blame on only one actor in what was, in fact, a much larger production.”
Making Assassination Theater into a play, then, was only natural—especially when he saw a friend do something similar with his own non-fiction work. Inspired, Levin decided to start a Kickstarter campaign to raise the funds to turn his JFK investigation into a play. He did well enough to give a one-time staged reading at the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest for 300 people. It did so well that he was able to bring it to Chicago as a full theatrical production.
Levin is hardly the first to finger the Mob for JFK’s death, but he may be the first to do so in such a unique way. Assassination Theater offers up Levin’s theories in a mixture of dramatic readings, wall projections, video clips, photos, and some basic costuming to indicate various witnesses—and he does it all with only four actors! Michael Joseph Mitchell portrays the playwright Hillel Levin, who trades off in outlining his theories with Mark Ulrich, who acts as his FBI friend Zack Shelton, the man who encouraged Levin to dig into JFK’s death. Two more actors—Ryan Kitley and Martin Yurek—deftly portray a variety of people as they quote witness testimony, read government documents, or even pantomime an autopsy—and they do it all on a tiny stage in the middle of a broadcasting exhibit.
Appropriately enough given the vast media coverage of JFK’s death, Assassination Theater is currently being performed on a small stage in the middle of an exhibit floor at Chicago’s Museum of Broadcast and Communications at 360 N. State Street. Though small and shallow, Levin and company manage to do quite a lot with the space, using limited props and simple costuming to portray their various witnesses. The overhead projections are a particularly nice touch, as are the background music and bits of news clippings, which bring a multimedia angle to the proceedings that’s particularly appropriate to it’s location.
Levin breaks up his play into two acts. Act I describes the assassination, including everything from the act itself (via the shocking Zapruder film, which kicks off the performance) to grisly autopsy photos and various witness testimonies, as well as the fallout and investigation regarding Oswald. It also covers his views on the Warren Commission’s efforts to “investigate” Kennedy’s death. Act II focuses more specifically on the Chicago Mob connection, with Levin fingering certain key Chicago underworld figures as the brains behind JFK’s death. While I don’t want to go into two many details, as they are the meat of Levin’s play, he manages to link together a lot of older theories into a surprising new whole.
As for the play itself, I find myself with mixed feelings. In the playbill to Assassination Theater, Levin asks that all viewers judge his play from two aspects: as a piece of investigative journalism and as a theatrical production.
Personally, I don’t feel comfortable critiquing the quality of Levin’s investigative journalism. I’m not a journalist, and I wasn’t alive when JFK died, unlike his target audience, so I can’t critique any of that. I’m also sorry to say that I don’t know much about the assassination or JFK in general, though I read a few books to help familiarize myself with the different major theories before seeing this play. While I didn’t necessarily agree with him 100%, his arguments seemed logical and were always backed up with some kind of evidence, whether witness testimony, interviews, or government documents. His arguments were clear and often compelling, feeding off of one another to make a larger picture. He certainly didn’t come off as a raving crackpot—an unfortunate but unavoidable risk, given his subject matter.
As for his theatrical aspect, the phrase “theatrical investigation” seems to apply as well as any to this production. I’m not sure I’d go as far as to call Assassination Theater a “play.” It’s more like a presentation with theatrical elements. However, I don’t think he always used these to the best effect. While Levin frames his theory with a bit of personal story about how he got involved in the first place, most of it is devoted to outlining his complicated theory, building it slowly over time and bit by bit. While his theory is logical, it can be a bit much in one go.
Ultimately, while watching Assassination Theater I was reminded again and again of the last play I saw which attempted to merge informative pieces with theatrical elements: Trust Us, Screw You by the Neofuturists. The play took great care to space out their historical anecdotes about famous con men with personal monologues about their subject, period songs, and various kinds of audience participation. This helped break up the information and made it easier to absorb. Levin’s play, in comparison, is more like a verbal onslaught: there’s a lot of great information crammed in there, but there is little time to analyze it in depth or really think much about exactly what he’s saying, beyond his personal spin on things. While this is an effective way to build tension, it’s a bit ham-fisted. A viewer with limited knowledge of JFK’s assassination and the major players involved could easily get lost in the rapid-fire recitation of names, dates, times, witness testimony, physical evidence and theories. It doesn’t necessarily encourage dialogue with the viewer, either. Levin’s tone sometimes comes off as self-satisfied or smug. At times, the dialogue between Levin’s character and Zack’s character is similar to Socrates and Thrasymachus in The Republic, with Zack telling Levin how “obviously” right his theory is, among other things. But, it’s easy enough to overlook if you view it simply a device to shape the flow of the proceedings.
On the whole, though, whether you agree with Levin’s theory or not, if you’re deeply interested in JFK’s death, Assassination Theater makes for compelling theater. It takes what could otherwise be a dry recitation and livens it up considerably, upping the tension and reexamining old evidence in a dramatic fashion. I’d say that as long as you’re on board with closely following the twists and turns of Levin’s evidence, give it a shot. Anyone with a genuine interest in how and why JFK died should be invested enough to enjoy this production. Even if you don’t agree with him, I guarantee that Hillel Levin will give you a lot to think about.
Care for a second opinion? Try these other reviews from around Chicagoland!