by John Stoltenberg
This season for whatever reason—and far be it from me to speculate—three theater companies in the nation’s capital are presenting Stephen Sondheim’s tunefully insolent tribute to presidential assassins.
Well, tribute might not quite be right. The story told in Sondheim’s music and lyrics and John Weidman’s book is actually more a theatrical visit to the psyches and societal crises of misfits who share with us why they felt compelled to kill. All set in a colorful carnival.
First of the three to open is a delightfully sassy Assassins from Pallas Theatre Collective produced by Tracey Elaine Chessum. (Next up this month is Next Stop’s, and Dominion Stage has another on the way in January.) Pallas has a track record of staging with panache contemporary musicals with political bite, and Assassins terrifically showcases the company’s audacious command of the form.
The carny setting of the show is suggested by circusy strands of lights strung from the ceiling and stuffed animals hung on the black backdrop like shooting gallery prizes. “Come here and kill a president!” barks the Proprietor (Alex Thompson) at the top of the show. And we’re off and running—with the sagas of nine actual assassins (a few who were would-be, most who did not throw away their shot).
The cast list is an actual rogues’ gallery: John Wilkes Booth (Andrew Keller), who shot Abraham Lincoln. Leon Czolgoz (an impressive Brendan McMahon), who shot William McKinley. John Hinkley (Taylor Rieland), who shot Ronald Reagan. Samuel Byck (Tyler Cramer), who plotted to kill Richard Nixon by crashing a plane into the White House. Giuseppe Zangara (an intense Topher Williams), who aimed at Franklyn Delano Roosevelt but shot the mayor of Chicago. Charles Guiteau (Zach Brewster Geisz), who shot James A. Garfield. Sara Jane Moore (Karen Lange) and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Alex Palting), who both fumblingly tried to kill a bumbling Gerald Ford (and who have some of the funniest scenes together in the show). And last and most famously, Lee Harvey Oswald (Andrew Flurer, a dead ringer his character)), who shot John F. Kennedy.
Each of their stories is told in scene and song, in an inventive variety of staging styles, in music that echoes each era, the actors wearing clothing of each period by Costume Designer Joan Lawrence. For instance, Palting as Fromme and Rieland as Hinkley are paired in a marvelous duet called “Unworthy of Your Love,” which Hinkley sings to his inspiration, Jody Foster, and Fromme sings to hers, Charles Manson. It’s weird but it works. Which well can be said of the whole show.
Also in the cast are Will Hawkins as an agreeably voiced Balladeer, Christine Callsen as the anarchist Emma Goldman, the young Gabriel Brumberg as Moore’s son Billy, and a versatile Ensemble that includes (in addition to the performers named above) Mason Catharini, Mark Pavan, Jenna Murphy, and Camryn Shegogue.
Director Clare Shaffer has ingeniously shoehorned the show into the black box at Logan by casting actors who double as musicians, such that at times they are the orchestra seated stage left and right and at times they are center stage singing and dancing and playing their instruments. The carnivalesque quotient of this choice pays off enormously in pleasure. Choreographer Pauline Lamb’s dance moves bring an infectious energy. Lighting Designer E-hui Woo creates beautifully moving effects during songs. And Sound Designer Reid May injects a variety of gunshots from the firearms obtained by Weapon Props Designer Brian Dettling.
The very idea of a musical about presidential assassins is a charged, nervy concept, and as executed by Pallas Theatre Collective the material is entertaining and unsettling in equal measure. There are a lot of guns in the show. There’s even a song in praise of them, “Gun Song.” And there’s a lot of anguished monologing about the disillusionments, deprivations, and despair that motivated how the guns came to be used. They’re all fake stage firearms, of course, but in the hands of this killer cast, they can give one a triggering jolt, as happened to me during the show’s startling choreographed finish.
The entire cohort of assassins has a big musical number near the end in which they each have a lyric that finishes the sentence “I did it because…” Clearly, this musical wants us to attend to the assassins’ interior lives in order to understand who they were as people and why they did what they did. Not to condone what they did. Not to make them out to be heroes or sympathetic. But to reckon with what made them each tick and not just dismiss them as deranged.
That’s a big ask. To know your answer, see the show.
Running Time: One hour 45 minutes, with no intermission.
Assassins plays through October 15, 2017, at Pallas Theatre Collective performing at the Logan Fringe Arts Space’s Trinidad Theatre – 1358 Florida Avenue, NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them online.