Read Deanna Isaacs’s column on Hillel Levin and Assassination Theater here.
Conspiracy theories are the know-it-all barflies of history: they’ve got an answer for everything. You say there’s a miracle, mess, or mystery from the past that you’d like to ponder? Nothing to it. Everything was arranged by some vast, all-powerful organization. Like the CIA. Or the Illuminati. Or the Kardashians.
In Assassination Theater: Chicago’s Role in the Crime of the Century—currently being staged at the Museum of Broadcast Communications under the focused direction of Kevin Christopher Fox—veteran investigative reporter and first-time playwright Hillel Levin offers not one but two conspiracy theories relating to the event that has spawned more of them than you could shake a tinfoil hat at: the killing of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. Levin believes that (1) the president was killed by the Chicago mafia in order to stymie the administration’s pursuit of organized crime, and (2) the government blamed everything on Lee Harvey Oswald to maintain order and look strong to the Soviets.
To his credit, Levin is aware of the whiff of crackpottery hanging around the proceedings. His self-effacing theatrical alter ego, also named Hillel (played by Michael Joseph Mitchell, wearing a trustworthy cardigan), tells us about his reluctance to delve into the hugger-mugger and often acknowledges how nutty he must sound to anybody who believes what the government has told us. But once he’s seen the evidence gathered by a retired FBI agent named Zack Shelton (a perpetually exasperated Mark Ulrich), he’s convinced beyond a doubt.
And so it’s once more to the grassy knoll and the Zapruder film, as the two men walk us through a multimedia presentation designed to poke holes in the Warren Commission Report (the official 1964 postmortem) and propose an alternative explanation involving ruthless mob bosses arranging to have Dealey Plaza overrun with hit men. Mitchell and Ulrich are assisted by Anthony Churchill’s sophisticated media design, which incorporates a slew of archival documents and images. Actors Ryan Kitley and Martin Yurek pass in and out, playing a series of inept, blinkered, and whistle-blowing government officials as well as a few underworld thugs.
Levin is at his most convincing when he’s pointing out the implausibilities in the Warren Report. Though this probably won’t be your first time hearing about unusual bullet trajectories and disregarded eyewitness testimony, Levin lays everything out in a clear, methodical, and therefore all the more damning way.
The case he builds against the mafia hinges on tantalizing circumstantial evidence suggesting motive, means, and opportunity. He establishes a pattern based on previous crimes, reveals hints, threats, and boasts from those he believes were involved, and finds a way to place everybody in Dallas.
All that’s missing in this intriguing explanation is the messiness of life. Levin rejects the Warren Report for being too neat, only to substitute his own too-tidy grand unified theory of everything. Quick to pass over confusion and chaos, he seems to find the idea of disorganized crime unacceptable. It might look at first as though JFK fell prey to that dangerous, uniquely American brew of ungovernable fanaticism, entitlement, and rage, but in Levin’s account, somebody was always pulling the strings.
Maybe he’s right. Then again, to paraphrase Hamlet (speaking of paranoid theorists), there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your conspiracy. v