Stickin' it to the man since 1927.
Assassins thrills audiences
by Natalie Beale
Clark’s latest musical offered a great night of entertainment from some of America’s most hated people. One by one, the men and women who killed – or tried to kill – a president tell their story through songs inflected with popular historical styles.
Impressions began as soon as the audience entered Daniels Theater, which was decked in Christmas lights and large red, white and blue banners. The colors of Old Glory suited Assassins, which argues that these outcasts were essentially patriots in their own minds.
They were possibly mad, and definitely violent, but their extreme actions stemmed from a belief that their country had been betrayed by the highest office in the land.
The whole cast remained on stage for almost the entirety of the one act performance, seated in a circle in front of a bar. The commanding and sly role of the top-hatted proprietor (played with style by Emma O’Melia) combined with the swooping banners gave the impression of a circus.
However, the assassins were so frequently sulking on chairs that it felt more like Hell’s waiting room. It is hard to imagine another circumstance that would bring these men and women together, given that they planned murder to stand out, and be recognized. They are loners fighting for one spotlight, and bringing these mad, violent and sad characters onto one stage creates engaging and discordant unity. Between jaunty songs the show became periodically intense, reminding the audience of the violence of their crimes.
The violence was masked well by black comedy, which was present in some of the wonderfully choreographed musical numbers.
“How I Saved Roosevelt” displayed terrific comic exaggeration. The insane Sara Jane Moore (Margo Smith) who had a shot at Ford was a wild-haired and hilarious extreme, letting off a blank at any moment. One student in front of me very nearly jumped out of his seat on one of those occasions. Some of the humor was slightly more subtle, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Alison Russo), another Ford assassin, was brilliantly and darkly unhinged. Russo commanded the insanity with some well-timed ‘crazy eyes.’ Charles Guiteau (Nick Tate), who was mad in an absent-minded, zany sort of way, killed Garfield when he was denied the position of ambassador to France. His hanging was another well executed sequence, made light of by playing jump rope with the noose.
Samuel Byck (Tyler Rosati) – the would-be assassin of Nixon – had some very angry and very funny monologues, recording imaginary conversations with public figures. Occasionally Rosati took Byck from the funny to the dangerous, reminding the audience that the man was an attempted muderer, turning laughter cold in a few seconds. Assassinsfrequently lulled you into enjoying the comedy and forgetting the harm that can be caused by one person, and the very real fury that grips him or her. Guiseppe Zangara (Parker Watts) was a particularly angry performance, giving no doubt that the character is deranged. Leon Czolgosz (Alex McCoy) and John Hinckley (Dexter Heeter) are conversely sorrowful performances, and are perhaps the most pitiable characters. I’m sure Hinckley isn’t the only man who would kill President Carter out of love for Jodie Foster (Hannibal Lecter would be on his side).
The star of presidential assassins, John Wilkes Booth (Thaddeus Kelly), is played in a suitably suave manner, and compared to the exaggerated comedy of the other characters, he cuts almost a sane figure (just don’t talk to him about race). In the only scene where the majority of the cast is off-stage, Lee Harvey Oswald (Jacob Gordon) is introduced as the most human figure of all: a man about to commit suicide. Booth appears, like the guardian angel of presidential assassins, to persuade Oswald to do the deed. Kelly, like Alison Russo, makes excellent use of the ‘crazy eyes.’ The rest of the cast follows Booth’s lead, and so through the two most shattering assassinations of American history, this unique club of loners is united.
In Kevin McGerigle’s Director’s Note in the programme, he states that “Sondheim opens the door to forbidden empathy for the men and women who enraged a country.” These patriots simply “cared too much.”
While it is an engaging concept and there are many characters to feel pity for, the farce and the anger is too strong to encourage genuine empathy.
Regardless, it was a fantastic comic performance from the whole cast, tinged with enough anger and sadness to prompt serious reflection on American values and patriotism.