a review of the Shotgun Players' production of Steven Sondheim's Assassins, playing until November 11th

By Velia De Iuliis

Here we go
As pure theater goes, there’s nothing like a Presidential assassination. It might be a one-time-only performance, but what a performance. The Shotgun Players' production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Assassins follows nine of our most infamous citizens and tries to get at what drove them to think that assassinating the President was a good idea and that they were ready to play the starring role or at least the villain in a national epic. It’s a complex and ambitious project and Shotgun’s choice of material at this moment and time is deliberately purposeful. If you love theater, you love chaos; although assassinations are not the type of theatrical chaos we want, or if we do, we should think long and hard about our desires. Shining a light on these characters is a necessary act and we don’t just get the ones we are well aware of, John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald (they both have three names), but a host of lesser known assassins ranging from Charles Guiteau (Steven Hess) who killed James Garfield (1881) and Leon Czolgosz (Dan Saki) who killed William McKinley (1901) to Giuseppe Zangara (fabulously played by Aleph Ayin), who assassinated Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak but who really wanted to kill President Roosevelt (1933).

The play opens with John Wilkes Booth (Galen Murphy-Hoffman) assassinating Lincoln, which is the set up, both historically and theatrically, for everything that follows. Hoffman knows how to sing a Sondheim song and he understands the tonal problems of giving shape and empathy to a killer. He completely inhabits Booth’s character, from his body language to the sinister complexities of his thought and makes us understand how badly Booth wants the world to see Lincoln’s assassination as a blessing rather than a tragedy. It’s one of the better moments in Susannah Martin’s production and should color and haunt everything that follows: that it doesn’t is one of the failures of the production and possibly a weak point in the overall design of Sondheim’s show. Without some overarching emotional arc, the play, even given its dramatic material, feels schematic, more of a sketch than a fully worked out artistic vision.
An Actor
One of the more interesting historical notes is that a woman has never successfully assassinated a President, but within seventeen days of each other two women tried to kill Gerald Ford. The first, Squeaky Fromme (Cody Metzger), was one of Charles Manson’s many lovers, disturbing enough in and of itself; the second, Sarah Jane Moore (Rebecca Castelli), is, at least here, portrayed as a unpredictable, middle-aged woman who is looking for a way to empower herself. This is certainly not what 1970’s feminism and Ms. Magazine were thinking about when they demanded equality between the sexes. It might as well be idiocy between the sexes, but that is of course Sondheim’s point. These assassins are real people and, although hideous, are deserving of our understanding if not sympathy. This is where the production really misses and it’s glaring in Metzger’s and Castelli’s performances which were irritating in different ways. Castelli’s singing ability is strong and unwavering, but she’s stuck in musical theater idioms that are antithetical to Sondheim’s concerns. The effect is jarring and overdone. On the other hand, Metzger is obviously a fine actress, but her singing voice is not adequate. It reminds me of Johnny Depp’s performance in Tim Burton’s film adaption of Sondheim’s Sweeny Todd—if you can’t sing, it doesn’t matter how well you act it.
Sing, sing a song
One high point of the production is Ryan Drummon’s performance of Sam Byck, a man who wanted to fly a plane into Richard Nixon’s White House. That kind of sounds ridiculous until you think of how close Al Queda was to doing the same on 9/11. When Byck records himself explaining his unrealized future actions to of all people, the composer, conductor and mentor to Sondheim himself, Leonard Bernstein, Drummond nails this would be assassin’s creepy logic and composure. It’s one of the few moments that play, music, performance and production come together to produce something truly shocking.

Sondheim is onto something. The twisted minds of these characters are uncomfortably real and human and the lives of our presidents come off as dangerously vulnerable. In this sense, the play and the production are successful. They both to varying degrees make you think and understand why these crazy people took on their murderous tasks. I wish that Shotgun’s production had done more to unwrap the complexities of Sondheim’s vision. Sondheim hasn’t quite realized the full scope of what he’s after, but you sense that in the right production a great deal more could be had. Assassins is both sad and intense and you need to feel the hatred and conflict in each of these damaged people and not just tantalizing bits and pieces here and there.
They sing and they kill

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