CTC’s Assassins Slays ‘Em

Assassins1There hasn’t been a full-blown, well-publicized presidential assassination attempt in quite some time (Motif’s publisher would very much like us to point out that this is a good thing). No president goes unthreatened, though, and the misfits portrayed in Sondheim’s Assassins have good company in the similarly pathetic brethren who have challenged the existence of Bush, Sr. through Obama. And even though the list has grown since the original production date of 1991, we won’t be seeing an Assassins II anytime soon. For while Assassins’ main device is to reimagine and synthesize the biographies of some of history’s most infamous losers, the individuals (Oswald and Booth aside) are almost irrelevant. In 2013, we don’t know Sam Byck from Frank Corder because, while similar in their tactics, neither man succeeded. And if the names Czolgosz and Guiteau don’t ring a bell, it’s because history fades, Garfield and McKinley didn’t capture the American zeitgeist and neither of the two intrepid gunmen wrote love letters to Jodi Foster. George W actually had two scary and credible attempts on his life involving precision gunfire and hand grenades, but no one could tell you the names of the people behind them. Unless the media is captivated by a particular aspect of the story, such as Reagan’s quips and Hinckley’s fascination with Taxi Driver, then life simply goes on. As the Balladeer in Assassins sums up quite well, “Doesn’t stop the story.”

Sondheim and Weidman’s misunderstood masterpiece has often been derided for being too opportunistic, in poor taste or simply inappropriate. While we can talk about Lincoln openly, the Kennedy legacy is still somewhat untouchable, which, if we’re honest, is really where folks get squirmy concerning Assassins. For those who are or would be bothered by such topics, this may never be your cup of tea. The humor is absurdist in a Monty Python way and, like Python, played with a straight face and a jaunty tune or two. To get hung up on the guns and the casual talk of killing is to miss the point. What Assassins explores is the sense of entitlement that imbues each of these characters. Each of these people (and the thread would continue through the modern day list as well) feel that they were cheated out their birthright, their slice of the American pie (“Not the sun, but maybe one of its beams?”) and whether it is bitterness over perceived injustices or desperate grabs at acceptance, the story is the same: I want what is coming to me and this figurehead on Pennsylvania Avenue is my winning ticket. It’s a moronic yet pitiable mindset born of any number of false prerogatives, a bigotry of the mind that believes that a lone individual’s death has the power to effect change in any positive way. However, Assassins glorifies not the deranged gunman, but the American spirit. Even in the face of such tragedies, we move on and persevere while Giuseppe Zangara becomes a footnote in history. And, as Americans, we attempt to deny even that footnote, for infamy is certainly still too high a prize for anyone who would dare to change the story.

Given that context, CTC grabs Assassins by the ears and shakes it in our faces. Director Jimmy Calitri has assembled a powerful cast and mixed in just the right amount of production value to add punch to a simple, piano-only arrangement of this diverse score. Projections on the wall scream “Shoot to Win!” as The Proprietor (a sultry, bewitching Hannah Van Meter), more devil’s advocate than narrator, kicks off the proceedings by tempting the spirits of past assassins to claim their prize and literally providing the weapons needed to fulfill their perceived destiny. As we progress back and forth through time, we get brief profiles of each would-be killer and the common thread of their desperately misguided (and often hilarious) aspirations. David Sackal’s Leon Czolgosz is appropriately brooding and sullen, evoking just enough pathos for this sorry man for us to want to shout out and warn him not to do it. Brian Mulvey’s Charles Guiteau is delightfully sprightly, and Jesse Dufault delivers a John Hinckley that begs like a puppy to be taken home and cuddled. Joshua Andrews is a crowd favorite as the Bad Santa that is Sam Byck, who attempts to hijack an airliner in order to kill Nixon in the White House. Andrews is often too slick, however, and the grubby exterior of Byck is slightly betrayed by what sometimes seems like a well-rehearsed audition monologue. When being too professional is a liability, you know your cast is solid, and standing above them all is Rae Mancini’s joyous Sarah Jane Moore who deserves her own spinoff. Like Maude on acid, Mancini raves with all of the self-contained logic that makes her derangement seem domesticated. The quite capable Shannon Hartman is left to play constant catch up with Mancini as the amusingly wigged Squeaky Fromme, but when the duo clicks, their combined desire to shoot Ford becomes a Godot-like trip into uproarious absurdity. High School Senior John Dyson joins the pack as the angry little Italian with the tenor voice, Giuseppe Zangara, declaring his antipathy (“No Care!”) until the electric chair switch is yanked.

The plot, such as it is, boils down to everyone becoming a supporting cast for John Wilkes Booth and the climactic newcomer to the gang, Lee Harvey Oswald (Hinckley breaking the scene to try and get Oswald’s autograph is one of the finest moments in the script). Patrick Keefe is commanding as Booth and finds the perfect blend of Southern smarm and righteous anger, especially as he compels the petulant and tractable Oswald (Patrick Saunders) to action. The voice of reason throughout is The Balladeer, not quite apologizing for their actions, but explaining how they came to this pass. When he interjects to call for reason, he is rebuffed and left to watch along with the rest of America and the world as history continues to repeat itself. Matthew Royality-Lindman brings a journeyman flair to the character, singing well, but not attempting to steal any spotlights. Amanda Downing Carney’s costuming throughout is tasteful in meeting the period challenges, but The Balladeer’s century-spanning outfit is both deceptively simple and brilliant in execution.

Lila Kane’s musical direction is simple and effective and Chelsea Cook crafts choreography that works in the relatively small CTC space without looking like this large cast is crowding the space. Assassins is challenging enough as a production, but CTC producing a musical on any scale was always going to be a tough nut to crack. They’ve succeeded in spades, and not unlike Wilbury’s raggedly triumphant Threepenny Opera from last season, Calitri and company have shown that great musical theater in Rhode Island can come from unexpected sources.

Assassins, Score by Stephen Sondheim, Book by John Weidman. Performances at The Contemporary Theater Company, 327 Main Street, Wakefield, RI. Oct. 4, 5, 11, 12, 18, 19, 24, 26, 31, Nov. 1, 2 at 7 p.m. and Oct. 20, 27 at 2 p.m. For tickets, visit http://www.thecontemporarytheater.com/boxoffice or call 401-218-0282.

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