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The Convert and The Magic Bullet Theory, Plays About Accidental Killings 

Thursday, Apr 26 2012
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Terry Tocantins and Alex Zola's The Magic Bullet Theory, closing this weekend at Sacred Fools Theater Company in Hollywood, is the second play to be produced locally this year focusing on the 1963 JFK assassination.

Dennis Richard's Oswald: The Actual Interrogation was performed in January and February at Write-Act Repertory, also in Hollywood. Though strategically ambiguous, Richmond Shepard's staging of Richard's play appeared at least in part to support the lone-gunman theory (the conclusion drawn by the Warren Commission): that a single ricocheting bullet (from one of three shots) killed the president of the United States and wounded Texas Gov. John Connally, both of whom were riding in the sedan with their wives as part of a parade through Dealey Plaza in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.

With the exception of a couple of flashbacks, Oswald arrived at its view through an extended interrogation scene between the accused Lee Harvey Oswald and a mild-mannered Dallas Police Department captain, Will Fritz — a scene cobbled together from Fritz's hand-scribbled notes. That production also posited the suggestion that Oswald had been framed.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY T. CHARLES ERICKSON - Danai Gurira's The Convert
  • PHOTO BY T. CHARLES ERICKSON
  • Danai Gurira's The Convert

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The tone of that production combined the noir melodrama of Dragnet and Law and Order, honoring the almost theological conviction of baby boomers that those three shots heard around the world in November 1963 represented the beginning of the end of innocence for the United States.

The Magic Bullet Theory, however, written and produced by post–baby boomers, defies all such reverence, and with that defiance carries a healthy skepticism that any era of American history, or any other history for that matter, was innocent. Its larger point is its derision for the controversial single- or "magic" bullet theory.

As directed by JJ Mayes, it presents a sketch-comedy conspiracy, irreverently choreographed by Natasha Norman, that unambiguously leaves the Warren Commission report in tatters. In fact, one scene dramatizes the single-bullet theory with an actor holding a bullet, which carries a tail of red string, from the assassin's rifle to and through the passengers (actors posing dutifully in a cardboard cutout of the open sedan). The scene demonstrates the trajectory of the bullet, which would have almost had to reverse directions in midair to support the single-bullet theory, in the meantime slicing through 15 layers of clothing, about 15 inches of tissue and a necktie knot, taking out a chunk of rib and shattering a radius bone. (This point of view also could be found in Oliver Stone's movie JFK as well as its parody on Seinfeld.)

The play replaces that theory with a highly speculative suggestion that the assassination was a botched conspiracy, headed by The Texan (Rick Steadman) — Lyndon Baines Johnson goes unnamed — employing a couple of "Yale-Fuck" killers (Pete Caslavka and Monica Greene), as well as Oswald (Michael Holmes), plus Charles Harrelson (Tocantins), who, with Oswald by his side, fires shots before placing the murdering rifle into dimwit Oswald's hands, thereby also supporting the notion that Oswald was framed.

Life may be stranger than fiction, but this fiction hangs on the most tenuous of threads: that the Texas contingent and the CIA were so peeved by President Kennedy's soft handling of Cuba, they just wanted to scare him, to let him know what they could do if he didn't stand up to Castro. In flashback, we see The Texan order the parade slowed to 10 miles an hour so the hired guns could fire and miss, sending a message, Mafia-style. But something went terribly, terribly wrong.

Imagine the JFK assassination replayed by Monty Python. The Brit sketch-comedy troupe infuriated millions of Catholics with its version of the Crucifixion in Life of Brian. (The crowd whistles to the lyric "Always look on the bright side of life" as the Savior hangs and nods in rhythm.) The Magic Bullet Theory is a comparatively local sacrilege — a couple of thugs dance in slo-mo, mock anguish whenever they see somebody killed. The production dances gleefully with nihilism, finding its footing somewhere between bravery and childishness.

In Danai Gurira's political-theological The Convert, which opened at Culver City's Kirk Douglas Theatre last week, there's also an accidental murder, which similarly speaks to the state of the world. Gurira's play, however, is far more orderly as it examines the chaos of British rule, in what is now Zimbabwe, near the turn of the last century.

Gurira's earthy realism, in fact, has such a clear psychological logic that the turning of events and of loyalties is as predictable as those in a play by Ibsen. This may be a comfort to those who grow weary of the ambiguity in dreamscapes and surreal approaches to performance.

Tenderly directed by Emily Mann, the production features some glorious performances, which, alongside the author's very witty treatment of language, carry the event.

Young tribeswoman Jekesai (the riveting Pascale Armand) is dragged into the home of a Catholic missionary named Chilford (Leroy McClain) by her scruffy relative Tamba (Warner Joseph Miller), trying to protect her from the efforts of her stepfather (Harold Surratt) to sell her for a herd of goats.

What unfolds is Jekesai's conversion to Catholicism and the identity crises that ensue as the British occupation becomes ever more brutal to the indigenous tribes, and a local uprising threatens Jekesai's host and "savior."

Cheryl Lynn Bruce also has a hypnotic turn as Chilford's maid with torn loyalties, and as Chancellor — a schemer caught between two warring camps — Kevin Mambo contains a charismatic jocularity, juxtaposed against the growing zealotry of McClain's Uncle Tom Chilford.

THE CONVERT | By Danai Gurira | Presented by Center Theatre Group at the Kirk Douglas Theatre | 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City | Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Tues., 2 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m. | Through May 19 | (213) 628-2772 | centertheatregroup.org

THE MAGIC BULLET THEORY | By Terry Tocantins & Alex Zola | Sacred Fools Theater, 660 N. Heliotrope Drive, E. Hlywd. | Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m. I Through April 28 | (310) 281-8337 | sacredfools.org

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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