Friends, readers, theatergoers, lend me your eyes; I come to praise “The Tragedy of JFK (as told by Wm Shakespeare)” at the Skylight Theatre, not to bury it.
Daniel Henning’s adaptation of “Julius Caesar” is an audacious new production from the Blank Theatre Company, one that inventively maps Shakespeare’s historical drama to figures and events surrounding the 1963 Kennedy assassination. Marrying director Henning’s deep knowledge of both classical theater and JFK conspiracy theories, the play transposes Shakespeare’s plot to the political intrigues of an Oliver Stone-worthy cabal at the highest levels of our government.
Henning’s modern-day Brutus is none other than Lyndon Johnson (Time Winters), reluctantly drawn into the conspiracy through the sinister machinations of a lean and power-hungry J. Edgar Hoover (Tony Abatemarco), who preys on Johnson’s fears that charismatic President John F. Kennedy (Ford Austin) is a tyrant in the making. And who better to deliver the tide-turning speech of Caesar loyalist Marc Anthony than JFK’s brother Bobby (Chad Brannon)?
The parallels go well beyond the principals and the theme of assassination. Henning finds contemporary equivalents even for Shakespeare’s supporting characters. Brutus’ wife, Portia, is now Lady Bird Johnson (Susan Denaker), JFK’s political adversary Casca appears as Allen Dulles (Bruce Nehlsen), Caesar’s wife, Calpurnia, becomes Kennedy’s widow, Jackie (Casey McKinnon), and executive secretary secretary Evelyn Lincoln (Kelie McIver) executes Soothsayer tasking.
Leaving large passages of Shakespeare’s verse intact, the update dovetails closely with the characters’ motives and the tragic events they set in motion — a credit to the universe-straddling abilities of the 17-member cast. Even more impressive is the Texas drawl Winters’ LBJ layers onto the meter (the Kennedy brothers also).
The concept stretches a bit thin during the period of social upheaval following JFK’s assassination, in which the civil rights and anti-war movements are only analogous. Nevertheless, Henning neatly ties it all back to the source with LBJ’s political (rather than literal) suicide, infusing Shakespeare’s text with the heightened emotional and visceral impact of a still-gaping national trauma.
“The Tragedy of JFK (as Told by Wm. Shakespeare)”
Where: The Skylight Theatre, 1816½ N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles
When: 8:30 p.m. Fridays, 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; ends Nov. 20.
Info: (323) 661-9827 or www.TheBlank.com
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Follow The Times’ arts team @culturemonster.
3:13 p.m.: This article was updated to include new production ending date and ticket price.