Have You Ever Been Assassinated?

Rebecca Beegle's 'Have You Ever Been Assassinated?' plays out like a fever-dream version of 'Yankee Doodle Dandy,' deliriously mashing up vaudeville acts with American history

Arts Review

Have You Ever Been Assassinated?

The Off Center, through Nov. 18

Running Time: 1 hr, 15 min

Quite the spiffy batch of variety acts this Cohan family has: fetching lady on a trapeze, mustachioed strongman, boy and girl tumblers, harmonizing trio, dancer with a knife act, and silent clown with the intractable walking stick. Nothing on the order of a Harry Houdini or W.C. Fields, mind you, but no less entertaining for that and with an appealing sense of showmanship and engaging rapport with the crowd. They play just swell out here in the sticks, but would they fare as well on the circuits Up North, where the marquees are lit with stars?

That's the question, isn't it? Certainly it's what the vaudevillians in Rebecca Beegle's Have You Ever Been Assassinated? are asking themselves. From the moment the curtain comes down – and we do mean comes down – on a run-through for their stage show, they're all abuzz over the arrival of the Redhead, a performer whose act is said to dazzle and whose one-time-only appearance with the Cohan show looks to be taking place on a straight shot to the Big Time. That sets everyone in the Cohan clan – papa Abe Lincoln Cohan, mama Mary Todd Cohan, Mary Jr., and Abe Jr. – as well as fellow troupers Mary Rowlandson (she of the sultry glances and flashing blades) and Johnny Booth (the white-faced comedian), to thinking about hitching their wagons to this rising star and catching a ride to fame and fortune. It's a common dream – an American dream, right? – but it's undercut by a shared anxiety that nags at each one: Is my act good enough? It's an insecurity that's amplified once they actually see the Redhead's act, which involves something called the Multi-Ethnic Machine and is described by Booth – in a phantasmagorical rant, delivered deliriously by Thomas Graves – as a kind of acid-trip vision of American history. How does a simple act of skill measure up to that? How does one compete?

It's a quintessentially American conundrum, and as the characters confront it, this Rude Mechs production plays out like a fever-dream version of Yankee Doodle Dandy. The characters take their names from both the subject of that classic George M. Cohan biopic and its star, James Cagney, and Cohan's penchant for celebrating Americana is all mashed up with real American history, as when Papa Abe – and that's Co-han, he wants to make clear, despite the inexplicable Yiddishisms uttered by his wife and son – takes a bullet just as his presidential namesake did, and at the hands of a man named Booth, no less. It's absurdist fun, made all the more so by the way that director Carlos Treviño weaves vaudevillian acts into the action: Joey Hood's Abe Jr. turning acrobat on scaffolding, Michael Mergen's Abe and Douglas Taylor's Redhead doing a soft-shoe routine as they trade dialogue, Heather Hanna's Mary and Thomas Graves' Booth balancing precariously on the bars of a wardrobe in a romantic interlude. It's pleasing to see these performers turn their considerable talents to the variety arts, and it reminds us of the simple pleasures they can still provide in this age of digitally dazzling blockbuster entertainments. But they also seem quaint; the product of a time now distant; and joined to the nostalgic feel of Leilah Stewart's set, Laura Cannon's costumes, Natalie George's lighting, and Graham Reynolds' music; we're steeped in the past and conscious of its weight on these characters.

One can see a purpose in that. These practitioners of a fading art form remain burdened by the past even as they dream of a successful future (something that might be said of their country in general). But that sounds like a downer, and this show isn't that. It may take place on "the last day of vaudeville," but these vaudevillians aren't going gently into that good night. If this is an American story, these Americans will just reinvent themselves, learn new acts. The play ends with mama Mary pointing the way toward vaudeville's successor, the movies, and from that flicker of hope bursts an ecstatic dance.

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