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ASSASSINS Misses its Target
REVIEWED BY: JAMES MURRAY
Stephen Sondheim’s and John Weidman’s commentary on the disenfranchised, the lack of gun control, and what drives people to become assassins has always been a problematic musical. It boasts, in my opinion, some of Sondheim’s most haunting and beautiful music and lyrics. However, Lapine’s book coupled with the subject matter is much of the main fault; these are not likeable characters and their reasoning abilities are frightening (even though completely true).
For those who do not know this piece Assassins is about the people in history that have killed, or attempted to kill, United States Presidents. Set in a weathered carnival it begins with John Wilkes Booth, the daddy of all assassins and goes through time (not chronologically which can be very confusing for some) until Lee Harvey Oswald killing Kennedy. The director Rachel Edwards Harvith explains in her approach “that instead of jumping completely through time and place we are setting the story in a midway of an abandoned country fair – a place on the outskirts of town, suited to those who have been pushed to the margins of society”. She also states that “we’re keeping the assassins in the playing space for the entirety of the show and having them play roles within each other’s flashback sequences. This allows them to bear witness to each other and recognize they are all a part of the same story – that although they’re labelled as freaks, together they are a force of history.”
Harvith’s vision and approach to the piece is interesting and works in some ways but largely fails in others and plays right into the book’s traps. With some of the characters rather narrowly drawn, the key to a strong production of Assassins is to make us feel something for these misfits and not just dismiss them as crazy “freaks”. In Kokandy’s production several of the actors are so over-the-top “crazy” that their yelling, screaming and pounding the walls (your typical Chicago School of theatre) in close proximity will turn your audience off. This is one loud production. From the orchestra (very fine musicians with a great sound) overpowering the space and actors (we lose many of Sondheim’s brilliant lyrics) to the deafening number “Where’s my Prize” where I turned off.
I fault the director in this because the cast was comprised of some really strong actors and musicians mostly fitting their roles (with the exception of Michael Potsic who did not even closely resemble Hinckley’s manner or appearance, Nathan Gardner’s Oswald which was physically too tall and did not resemble him in the least and Cole Doman’s Balladeer who was too young and lacked the vocal delivery style of a balladeer). If reined in, scaled to fit the small space (with the exception of Eric Lindhal who is outstanding as Booth) and given more intensity instead of volume we could get drawn in to their world and focus more on their humanity and not their insanity which would fix much of what I found distracting.
The staging of the actors was not thought out carefully to overcome the difficulties of the L-shaped setup of the theatre (a very badly designed space) with much of the action being played to the front like a proscenium, cutting off a direct view from the sides which contained the most patrons. I sat in the section that much of the action was played for.
Harvith did have some nice staging choices with the hanging of Guiteau (extremely arresting) the use of carnival like masks of the actual Presidents and the use of an onstage spotlight. She achieved the mood that she was going for and was consistent and detailed with her overall vision which is commendable.
Another weak choice is that of the actual prop guns used. Now this may have to do with some of Chicago’s ridiculous rules about smoking and gun use on stage, but by not having them fire caps they lose their danger as actual weapons. As this is a play about guns I found this truly unfortunate. I have seen many productions of Assassins and usually at the end (as in the magnificent Jeff-winning Porchlight production in 2007) all of the assassins line up, aim their guns at the audience and fire as the lights black out. It is a horrific moment that drives the whole message of Assassins home and makes it visceral for the audience.
Harvith also has cast some people to resemble their actual counterpoints but others are really so far off that we do not know who they are until we are told. One glaring example of this has to do with costume choices. The photo of Lee Harvey Oswald in the white tee shirt is such an iconic image that by having him in a beige linen shirt you do him a great disservice and confuse your audience. Harvith should have played into and not away from these choices. Even though she wants to make a statement and put her brand of uniqueness to the production she needs to follow the things that have made other productions successful.
However there are some really fine things in this Assassins. Standouts are Eric Lindhal’s John Wilkes Booth, with a gorgeous baritone voice and maturity and stage presence as an actor that draws us in, Patrick Byrnes’ Czolgosz, beautifully drawn and brilliantly played by a fine actor, and Alex Heika’s Zangara, a frightening performance who has one of the strongest scenes in the piece as he is being electrocuted. If Greg Foster would tone down the craziness in his Guiteau (his eyes are enough to let us know) he would be much better. He has tremendous stage presence.
The strongest performance however is that of Jason Richard’s Sam Byck dressed as Santa Claus whose aim it was to assassinate Richard Nixon. This character is the centerpiece of Assassins and is given the most stage time. Richard’s finesse as a superb actor finds a multitude of levels to play that gives the character a richness and vulnerability that touches us and makes us relate. He is the “Everyman” in the show and the one character who does not just come across as a freak.
Allison Hendrix has a great moment in the gorgeous love song “Unworthy of Your Love” where you see her love and devotion to Charlie Manson as she tears up while looking through his newspaper articles but maintains her pitch (a fiendishly difficult thing for a singer to achieve).
The set design by Zachary Gipson creates the right environment for Harvith’s vision but could have been improved if whitewashed so that it resembled an actual carnival. The brown made it dull and look like a set. The idea of the game board of the Presidents lighting up was a great touch and solved many problems of the script.
Lighting Designer Brandon Wardell also created the appropriate mood which made us feel like we were in a purgatory of sorts. The use of fog, which is highly effective, does overpower the space and lingers throughout the 100 minutes playing time.
Lastly I credit Sondheim for adding a song before the final reprise of “Everybody Has the Right to be Happy” which nails the theme that this country has become broken along with the people. It is a sad but true statement of how greed, Presidential power, lobbyist and big government can disenfranchise many of the people it is there to serve and who were foolish enough to buy into in the” American dream”. Assassins is what happens when they realize it was all a lie.