As questions go, it’s a short but explosive doozy: What if? In entertainment its produced a number of alternative WWII histories (including the current Amazon smash Man in the High Castle) and about as many re-imaginings of JFK's 1963 assassination.
Moth Theatre's Children of Camelot is the latest take, imagining what would have happened if Kennedy's assassin Lee Harvey Oswald survived to stand trial and to tell his side of the story. The idea came to first-time playwright Nakisa Aschtiani in 2007, well before the 50th anniversary in 2013 brought another stream of programs and books. “I was watching a program about the JFK assassination on the History Channel and I noticed how everyone called Oswald the killer even though he never stood trial, and I thought that someone should write about it,” she says.
In 2009 Aschtiani started writing scenes longhand and began typing the script when her then-boyfriend bought a laptop. The show, which premiered to a full house on (naturally) November 22, is the culmination of nearly a dozen drafts and two years of workshops.
Aschtiani, 35, an in-house banker at a real estate investment firm based in Palms by day, recalls how her mother, who a teenager at the time of the Kennedy assassination, told her she was affected by that day. “She was born and bought up in Iran — not really a country that was friendly to the USA — yet she said everyone there loved him. Her best friend even had a picture of JFK in her school locker, and was devastated when he was killed.”
In the play Oswald (Jeremy Krasovic) survives the Jack Ruby shooting, and only Mark Lane (Jeff Cheezum), a friend of Kennedy determined to either verify Oswald's or bring the real killer to justice, will act as his lawyer. We see the fallout of Oswald's imprisonment and the effect is has on others including Jackie Kennedy (Heather Lynn Smith) and Oswald’s Russian wife Marina (Nomi Abadi).
“It’s more character driven than politically driven,” says Aschtiani, who also directs. “Ruby said he shot [Oswald] to spare Jackie the agony of a trial, so I thought, ‘Let’s put Jackie through a trial.’ We never heard much about Marina, Bobby or her in that way, yet here in this play we meet them.”
With mountains of material available to research, Aschtiani was determined to do more than simply relay what people could already read about. “I’d start at point A and soon be at point X anyway, so I had to stop, and pick and choose. For Jackie though I did read a couple of autobiographies and biographies, sometimes just stopping at a random page.” The play features quotes from the official police investigation read as narration from off stage, as well as specifics and quotes embedded in the dialogue: “I call them the ‘Easter eggs,’” Aschtiani says.
As for the cast members — none of whom was alive back in 1963 — Aschtiani warned them that the audience would come in with preconceptions about how the characters should behave. She coached them to respect that, “but to also remember that [the characters are] real people in extraordinary circumstances and fully in the public eye. We should get to know them better as a result of this, because they all suffer a common thread of tragedy, like all of us have at some time.”
Aschtiani says audiences have been split on what conclusions they draw after seeing the play. “When we did a stage reading a year ago, we spoke to the audience afterward. One lady was adamant he was guilty, and quite angry about what she had seen. But then the cast and I reminded her that she didn’t know him, and all we know was what the media allowed you to see. When we took a vote, the audience was split down the middle — a hung jury.”
Moth Theatre, 4359 Melrose Ave., East Hollywood; Thu.-Sun. through Dec. 20; $15, $12 for students. moththeatre.com.