Presidential “Assassins” sing, dance and shoot
The Rep opens its Powerhouse season with Sondheim's funny, bitter musical about the afterlife of audacious killers.
Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins is a cackling carnival of a musical, a sideshow of grotesques, a fun-house mirror of America. This bitterly funny show, which The Rep opened Friday at the Powerhouse Theater, amuses even as it lays out some chilling observations about the greatest country in the world.
The assassins and wannabes inhabit Todd Edward Ivins’ brilliant ruined carnival, complete with a massive, turning gallows/carousel, a warren of stairways, walkways and chambers. It somehow splits and rolls apart, too, to create open playing space in the middle of the stage.
The gang’s all here: The nitwit pair of Squeaky Fromme and Sara Jane Moore (Sarah Litzsinger and Caroline O’Connor), who bungled an attempt on Gerald Ford. Charles Guiteau (Mark Price), the little bantam who killed James Garfield for dashing his delusion of becoming ambassador to France. Giuseppe Zangara (Brian Sills), driven by the bile in his belly and in his soul to take a shot at FDR. Leon Czolgosz (Steve French), whose boiling rage over economic inequality drove him to shoot William McKinley. Samuel Byck (Lee E. Ernst), the rambling, ranting alcoholic who died during a bloody attempt to hijack a plane and crash it into the Nixon White House. John Hinckley (Evan Harrington), who thought shooting Ronald Reagan might advance his amorous interests in Jody Foster. John Wilkes Booth (Adam Monley), Lincoln’s assassin, inspires and guides them. The vain Booth recruits Lee Harvey Oswald (Chris Peluso) in a Faustian scene, with the promise of immortality. The devil needs disciples.
The carnival proprietor (Jonathan Gillard Daily) eggs them on as they play out their fantasies, re-enact their crimes and punishments, and explain their reasons. They will do this, apparently, forever. None are contrite, so it isn’t quite hell. They’re as sure of themselves as ever.
The freak show they comprise amuses as it horrifies. Their theories are laughable in every sense. In most cases — Czolgosz is the exception — they have blown up petty grievances to outlandish, comic proportions. Byck, for example, was denied an SBA loan and thus decided Nixon had to die.
But none of this is comedy to them. They believe every syllable of their vicious nonsense and utterly miss their misapprehension of reality. Each character airs his grievance, and under Mark Clements’ direction, these dazzling actors give credence and heft to their crackpot characters. Sondheim’s lyrics and John Weidman’s book admit a grain of truth at the center of the snowballing madness. At some point in their songs and soliloquies, especially those assigned to Booth and acted with such passion by Monley, each of them begins to make some weird sort of sense. You can sympathize with them, if only just a little. And then they keep going and going, and you feel a frisson of horror over that fleeting sympathy.
What the characters say is no more important than how they say it. This theatrical tour-de-force crackles with stage invention. Mark Price, Clements and choreographer Michael Pink conspired on my favorite bit: Guiteau is a self-promoting flim-flam man, salesman of the American dream and sometime preacher, a ball of volatile manic energy ready to sell the Brooklyn Bridge in one moment and save all ye sinners the next. The team put together a song-and-dance that veered violently between a bone-jarring, spasdic cakewalk and pliant, zen-like calm. The extremism of it said everything about Guiteau, and Price scored a knockout in a virtuoso turn.
You won’t exit the theater humming Sondheim’s tunes, but its garish burlesque and pseudo folk-tunes fit moods and periods and amplify the tawdriness of the enterprise of assassination.
Assassins summons complex and contradictory emotions. The members of an all-American Greek chorus clamor and compete for reflected celebrity and are also voyeurs of violence. They’re us, and it isn’t pretty, at least not until the stunned calm in the wake of the Kennedy assassination. The assassins, as they sing and dance, often point their pistols out toward the house. The show is genuinely funny, but bitterly funny. We laugh a lot, but the laughter is uneasy. It should be.
Assassins runs through Oct. 7. For tickets and further information, visit the Milwaukee Repertory Theater website.
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