(Sacred Fools Theater) Theories about the Kennedy assassination have been explored in film and stage many times, but not like this mad romp and wild chaotic ride at Sacred Fools -- L.A.’s delightfully irreverent theatre company.
The Magic Bullet Theory suggests that a muddle-headed, love-impaired assassin was hired not to kill but to miss his target with a warning shot…and he messed it up and accidentally killed the president. Absurd? No more absurd than the decision reached by the Warren Commission: that there was only one shooter -- a demented guy named Lee Harvey Oswald, and that the bullet went in one direction, deflected off a bone, changed direction, and hit another target. And since the story is told in music, in dance, in a romp of improbable scenes filled with crazy government guys, crazy mafia guys, with an absolutely side-splitting pantomime of “tragedy” using slow-motion, I asked the authors if they intended this to be Theater of the Absurd.
Note: Theater of the Absurd was a movement in the '60s where “absurd” plots and unreal irrational scenes somehow leave the audience with a “message” -- a clear concept sometimes more effective than conventional theater. For instance: No Exit, by Samuel Beckett, where a character carries a heavy suitcase full of sand and refuses to put it down: a powerful life lesson. Or The Sandbox, by Albee, where the old granny is kept in a sandbox with her very own food dish. Or Krapps Last Tape -- a powerful play where an old man sits monkey-like eating a banana, listening to the tape of his brilliant youthful ideas.
This play was conceived at Sacred Fools’ Sunday night competition called Serial Killers, where short segments of new plays are “voted on” by audiences, and some of them developed into full-length plays. This was one conceived by Terry Tocantins and Alex Zola. Zola, one of the authors, said he couldn’t quite call it “absurd theater.” He wanted to approach the Kennedy assassination in the same way that the atomic bomb was portrayed in Dr. Strangelove. Yet, their “absurd” view of a horrendous event is not only wildly entertaining but leaves the audience with provocative and disturbing questions.
The major shocker after the laughter dies down: 169 people involved in the assassination have died since the event. 169. And in many scenes, a drunken Dorothy Kilgallen pratfalls and is dragged out. I had to Google Dorothy Kilgallen, who was, to me, vaguely familiar as a news commentator of that period. Dorothy Kilgallen claimed that she knew who killed Kennedy, she was about to reveal it, and she died suddenly and mysteriously. The “play” runs an hour 45 minutes without intermission. But the action is so entertaining, often so puzzling, that I spent the first half not only laughing but trying to reconcile the plot with what I remembered of the real event, and the second half thinking, "Oh, who gives a damn?" and just letting go and having a wild rompy but gut-laughy time.
The lively talented ensemble does a fine job: Vanessa Stewart plays Jackie, wandering through the action in her familiar pill-box hat and blood-spattered skirt. Michael Holmes is a scattered, rather idiotic Lee Harvey Oswald. Terry Tocantins, with his gun handy, is the guy who shot and should have missed, but hey, it was an off day. And the wonderful two-guy schtick which demonstrates faces of “tragedy” was done in “slow- motion” by Bryan Krasner (who plays remarkably like the iconic Zero Mostel) and K.J. Middlebrooks. Jack Ruby was an effective Marz Richards. I saw the play opening night. It still needs a bit of cutting, tightening, and shaping, but even as is, just a great night of fun with a bonus of a lot of afterthought…which makes for a successful night of theater.
Plays like this one, and indeed the name Sacred Fools itself, provoke deep and disturbing questions. Our great democratic society was created out of a wild experimental shakeup of old entrenched chain-of-being ideas, challenging the sacred rights of kings to rule the lives of the rest of us. Democracy in theory. Yet today there are, as one of our great playwrights tells us in the play of the same name: “…little foxes that spoil our vines…and eat our tender grapes.” Mayors use their communities for personal profit. Our politics have always been ripe subject for comedians, but this year’s election doesn’t even need a comedian to interpret the madness of the season.
We live in this great chummy Internet community without knowing if all our personal information is being used for commercial or nefarious reasons. We have little idea of why our wars are being fought, and we still don’t know what powerful figures are trying to buy our elections. And somebody (or some organization) kills one of our great presidents, and with all our resources, we still don’t know the truth of who-dunnit? Serious theater has always been in the front line of inquiry, challenging us to think critically and act “morally” in the best sense. Today, theater may lean toward “entertainment,” but there is still a challenging and provocative theater to question the “system.” They still reprise Death of a Salesman with its moral central issue, and the “absurd” Waiting for Godot is currently playing on Broadway. It’s for innovative and provocative and perhaps “absurd” theater to challenge us to think and act. As the character says in Godot, “I can’t go on, I must go on, I go on.” So more courage to experimental theaters like Sacred Fools and their wild improbable humor to keep alive unsolved mysteries like the incredible cover-up of the assassination of a great president.
'The Magic Bullet Theory' runs until April 23, 2012 at Sacred Fools in Los Angeles.