Assassins: Infamy, Irony and the American Dream

Posted on March 20, 2016, 8:00 am
8 mins

Satire is increasingly becoming the chosen medium to communicate serious ideas: It’s common knowledge that Last Week Tonight with John Oliver is generally more trusted than anything on Fox, and everyone can appreciate the dark reality behind a well-written headline from The Onion. So when Stephen Sondheim sets out to write a musical entitled Assassins, as he did in 1990, we can expect dark humor and a healthy dose of pastiche, interwoven with the composer’s characteristic just-unsettling-enough parodies of human behavior. And when Seattle theatre powerhouses 5th Avenue Theatre and ACT pair up to bring us Assassins, we can expect that same satirical tone to be delivered with finesse and admirable technique, their joint powers crafting a solidly good production.

Such is the case with the two theatres’ ongoing run, which is playing at ACT’s Falls Theatre through May 8. Assassins, part murderous carnival and part ballad-driven Americana revue, is a whiplash-quick jaunt through the minds of American’s most notorious figures, a clown-house of .32 caliber pistols pulled from handbags and cakewalks to the scaffold. The show is crafted with the same comical but distinctly human self-awareness akin to Sondheim’s better-known musicals, Into the Woods or Sweeney Todd, but with a particularly haunting commentary. These are not fairytale creatures or fictional demon barbers of Fleet Street. Instead, we are face-to-face with John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald, people we have known since fourth grade history class, all instantly recognizable as both very real and synonymous with whatever childhood definition of “infamy” we may have held.

As such, Assassins hits a disturbing pressure point directly on one’s own national pride. Like many Americans, I have a complicated personal relationship with the United States–not necessarily one that takes offense with the upside-down bullethole-ridden American flag that graces the stage as Assassins comes to a close, but one that is still slightly nauseated as Lee Harvey Oswald is goaded towards a sniper rifle. ACT Artistic Director John Langs, who staged the show, states in his program note that the choice to produce Assassins during an election year (especially when the dialogue surrounding gun control is especially divisive) was perfectly intentional, in hopes that “theatre can provide a dynamic catalyst for conversation…and for action.”

The show carries an air of a haunted carnival, all smoke and ghosts of assassins past and demented organ-grinder renditions of “Hail to the Chief.” The opening scene introduces us to the Proprietor, a sleazy wifebeater-clad showman who presents each character in turn with a “chance to shoot the president,” in a twisted take on carnival marksman games. The immediate effect is reminiscent of The Producers’ mock musical “Springtime for Hitler,” which parallels Assassins in several key ways, highlighting notorious figures and diving into their motivations, but playing them in such a way to render them parodical and separate from historical context.

"Assassins" characters Charles Guiteau (Richard Gray) with Leon Czolgosz (Brandon O'Neill), Sara Jane Moore (Kendra Kassebaum) and John Wilkes Booth (Louis Hobson). - See more at: p://www.acttheatre.org/About/MediaRoom/ProductionPhotos/Assassins#s

Charles Guiteau (Richard Gray) with Leon Czolgosz (Brandon O’Neill), Sara Jane Moore (Kendra Kassebaum) and John Wilkes Booth (Louis Hobson). Photo by Tracy Martin.

For a show that is mostly constructed as a series of backstory vignettes, Assassins is very much an ensemble piece, each players’ strengths and weaknesses playing against the others’. The chemistry between Laura Griffith’s Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Kendra Kassebaum’s Sara Jane Moore sparkled with gleeful malintent and comedic timing, and John Coons’ sullen Giuseppe Zangara was the perfect antithesis to John Langs’ hammy ensemble staging in “How I Saved Roosevelt.” Griffith and Frederick Hagreen (as John Hinkley, Reagan’s would-be assassin) made a passionate if anachronistic pairing as each declared themselves “Unworthy of Your Love” to Charles Manson and Jodie Foster, respectively.

However, despite undeniably good bones and a solid production, Assassins falls a little short of its potential–several of the actors’ motions feel lacking in intention (Nick DeSantis as The Proprietor) or the necessary energy (Richard Gray as Charles Giuteau, Louis Hobson as a subtly malicious John Wilkes Booth), and the distracting sound imbalances during the ensemble numbers are particularly at odds with the technological abilities of ACT’s theatre. Nathan Brockett is the perfect embodiment of his troubadour character, the Balladeer, during more conversational passages, but tends to cede any vocal control to his dark vibrato on the longer notes, which results in a jarring juxtaposition of tone. The heavy-handed spoken dialogue (never a musical’s best feature), addressing privilege and immigration and the American identity, did not benefit from the lack of nuance with which it was delivered.

Assassins.The Balladeer (Nathan Brockett) with John Wilkes Booth (Louis Hobson).

The Balladeer (Nathan Brockett) with John Wilkes Booth (Louis Hobson).

In a dark turn, Assassins leads up to the most recent, and perhaps most infamous, successful assassination of American history: That of JFK. The Assassins book, written by John Weidman, revels in the fact that Lee Harvey Oswald’s motivations remain entirely unknown. Instead of creating a false incentive, Weidman fashioned a huge historical gang-up of past and future assassins where Oswald is egged on by a Puckish John Wilkes Booth and the promise of living on in infamy. Nathan Brockett, double-dutying as Oswald and the Balladeer, carries this entire scene and, in fact, the remainder of the show with subtle rage and self-hatred; whether this is achieved by the formidable weight of Brockett’s acting or the notoriety of his character is unclear.

The resulting actions of Lee Harvey Oswald efficiently sums up one of the many unsettling themes of Assassins: Everybody just wants to become someone. Matt Wolfe’s diatribes as would-be Nixon assassin Sam Byck–easily the most stomach-turning and captivating monologues in this production–echo this: “Where’s my prize?” Civilians hammer away at their turn at the microphone in “How I Saved Roosevelt,” a vapid glimpse at how pervasive the dream of personal recognition is in the American zeitgeist. Leon Czolgosz, played beautifully by Brandon O’Neill, shoots President McKinley–presumably on behalf of the common man, but also because America wasn’t anything the Polish immigrant was promised it would be.

But after all, as the Proprietor sings enticingly, “Everybody’s got a right to their dreams.”

Assassins runs at ACT’s Falls Theatre through May 8–visit the website to purchase tickets

Claire Biringer is a Seattle-based music lover, educator and writer. She holds an MA in Music History from University of Washington, where her primary research involved contemporary opera and its social implications. She enjoys using music and writing to build communities and broaden minds.