Citizens taking violent action against authority are the subjects of Do No Harm and Montreal Honeymooners, two streaming shows presented by Austin, Texas-based theater company the Highland Lakes Players in this year’s Philly Fringe.
Do No Harm explores the mystery surrounding the 1935 assassination of Louisiana politician Huey Long, who was known for his charisma and populist politics. His control of Louisiana as governor and later senator has been compared to that of a demagogue. Long is thought to have been shot by Dr. Carl Weiss, whose father-in-law, Judge Benjamin Pavy, an opponent of Long’s, was slated to be ousted from his position after Long gerrymandered Pavy's district.
Long died 31 hours after the shooting at the hospital; Weiss was killed on the spot by Long’s bodyguards. The particulars of the assassination remain in dispute—there are theories that Weiss punched Long and that Long was accidentally shot by his bodyguards. To this day Weiss’s family contends that he did not kill Long.
An unexpected defender
Do No Harm supports Weiss’s innocence and has found for him an unexpected defense counsel—Long himself, who returns from beyond the grave as both attorney and star witness. With the audience acting as jury, writer/director Raymond V. Whelan presents a thoroughly researched sequence of events leading up to the assassination, Weiss and his family’s personal histories, and an outline and disputation of his motivations to murder Long.
Rather than live performance, Whelan uses static historical images, text, and audio to tell this story, for a radio drama-meets-PowerPoint effect. The visual piece works well with its presentational trial format, but inconsistent musical scoring and the fact that only members of the defense are voiced (Whelan as Long, Sebastian Garcia as Weiss, and Samantha Levine as Weiss’s wife Vonnie, among others) keep the piece from ever achieving a smooth flow and rhythm. Characters also use racist language to describe one of Weiss’s murderous incentives.
Whelan imbues Long with warmth and sense as a defender of the underdog. The trial structure provides this piece with inherent drama and conflict as motive and evidence are revealed and countered. Whelan makes a credible case for Weiss’s innocence with the evidence presented, though the alternative history the play supposes is harder to believe. We may never know for certain if Carl Weiss assassinated Huey Long, but in Do No Harm, he at least gets the trial he was denied in life.
The couple next door
Montreal Honeymooners unfolds during the October Crisis, a moment in Canadian history possibly less familiar to Americans than the death of Huey Long. In October 1970, Front de libération du Québec (FLQ), a militant Quebec independence movement, kidnapped James Cross (the British trade commissioner) and Pierre Laporte (Quebec Minister of Immigration, Labour, and Manpower), calling for the release of imprisoned FLQ members and other demands. The federal government invoked the War Measures Act, suspending civil rights and liberties, the first and only time it had done so during peacetime. Cross was released two months later after a deal was made, but Laporte was murdered in captivity.
In Montreal Honeymooners, also written and directed by Whelan, police inspector Clarence Wolfe questions Cross’s next-door neighbors, Patrick and Marie Moore. The couple is under suspicion not only for their proximity to the crime, but Marie’s identity as a Francophone.
Like Do No Harm, Montreal Honeymooners employs static images and text, but in this case, the presentation of the historical information feels didactic rather than dramatic.
Whelan is appropriately patronizing as Wolfe, and Garcia and Levine are appealing as the mild Patrick Moore and spirited Marie Moore as she fires back at Wolfe’s microaggressions. But the stakes of their conflict feel low; the Moores never believe they are in real danger from the police and neither do we. With its runtime of 24 minutes, Montreal Honeymooners may not demand much of our time, but it leaves the many dramatic possibilities of the October Crisis regrettably unmined.
Ultimately Do No Harm and Montreal Honeymooners offer compelling and informative investigations of true events that may inspire curiosity and deeper dives into their histories.
Portions of Do No Harm and Montreal Honeymooners contain text that is not read aloud and audio that is not captioned.