By Tulis McCall
Assassins is a particular piece. There is only one prop common to all of the characters: a gun. It is their strength, their sword, their sword arm for that matter. Because they welcome it, and everything for which is stands, they can and will murder – or at least try. But murder, in this case is not a blip on the monitor.
Murder is a tawdry little crime; it’s born of greed, or lust, or liquor. Adulterers and shopkeepers get murdered. But when a President gets killed, when Julius Caesar got killed … he was assassinated.
Because guns have become ubiquitous in this country – a fact unimaginable just a few years ago – and because of the recent tragedy on the set of Rust – it is difficult to watch these characters cherish their weapons. January 6th is not that far away in our rear-view mirror. The Rittenhouse trial beckons us to give it the favor of our attention. Guns, or the threats of them, surround us. So why would we want to watch a show about assassins?
I don’t know.
Which does not mean I dismiss it. Indeed, I have been thinking about it, or perhaps it is better to say it got its mitts on me and has not let go.
Each of the assassins has their day in the sun, with some getting more light than others. Most compelling is John Wilkes Booth (Stephen Pasquale in a 19th century suit that makes you want to do a bit of time traveling). His elegant presentation carefully and logically lays out his case. Because of Lincoln the country and the world will never be the same. Eliminating Lincoln will not restore either to their former glory, but at least it will stop the hemorrhaging. It is an aria. We move through the other stories at a clip, with each person having just enough time to plead their case.
Until we get to Sam Byk (Andy Grotelueschen) who is on a mission to crash a 747 into the White House because Nixon is not doing his job. What begins as a taped recorded message to Leonard Bernstain morphs into a diatribe that is an indictment against – well, everything that sane thoughtful people are fighting against today. Which is another nail in the coffin of this tale: some elements of USA Life have not improved at all.
This non-improvement is something we have all experienced in the last 20 months. Sure we have the Internet that has saved us from going bonkers. But the internet did not stop us from being alone; it did not stop George Floyd’s death; it did not stop people dying while The Guy looked the other way.
In a documentary created as a fundraiser for Classic Stage Company last April, Hillary Clinton said of Assassins that it “dares its audience to see our country and assess our national myths through the eyes of our villains instead of our heroes.” Kind of like telling the story of Little Red Riding Hood from the vantage point of the wolf.
The truth about theatre is that it happens in front of you. It is intimate. Theatre exchanges molecules with you. Film, not so much. I rooted for Bonnie and Clyde, Butch and Sundance, Angelina in Salt. When a movie’s deaths pile up – I step to the side. There is no stepping away in theatre.
Assassins made me understand what I did not want to understand about people who assassinate.
Assassins made me glad I don’t own a gun.
ASSASSINS – music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim Book by John Weidman from an idea by Charles Gilbert, John Doyle Director
WITH Adam Chanler-Berattcher as John Hinckley, Jr, Eddie Cooper as The Proprietor, Tavi Gevinson as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, Andy Grotelueschen as Samuel Byck, Judy Kuhn as Sara Jane Moore, Steven Pasquale as John Wilkes Booth, Ethan Slater as Lee Harvey Oswald/The Balladeer, Will Swenson as Charles Guiteau, Giuseppe Zangara as Wesley Taylor, Leon Czolgosz as Brandon Uranowitz, Eddie Cooper as The Proprietor, Bianca Horn as Emma Goldman; Brad Giovanine, Whit K. Lee, Rob Morrison, and Katrina Yaukeyas members of the ensemble.
John Doyle (Set Design), Ann Hould-Ward(Costume Design), Jane Cox andTess James (Lighting Design), Matt Stineand Sam Kusnetz (Sound Design), Steve Channon(Projection Design), Charles G. LaPointe(Wig Design), Greg Jarrett(Music Supervisor / Orchestrations), The Telsey Office(Casting
Presented by Classis Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street. EXTENDED through January 29, 2022