By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Stephen Sondheim's Assassins takes aim at the American dream and blows it to smithereens. The strangely hypnotic musical, now onstage in an excellent production at Quad C Theatreat Collin County Community College, imagines a surreal reunion of four killers of presidents and five who tried.
Existing together on a weird plane of limbo are those whose depraved dreams made them footnotes in history. They interact in bizarre tableaux. John Hinckley, Ronald Reagan's would-be murderer, sings a sweet love song alongside Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, who attempted to shoot Gerald Ford. Fromme and frumpy housewife Sara Jane Moore, who also stalked Ford, share a park bench and discover a mutual connection to a certain glassy-eyed cult leader. John Wilkes Booth gives Lee Harvey Oswald a pep talk with quotes from Death of a Salesman.
Joining the group are less well-known assassins: the delusional Charles Guiteau, who wrote a poem before shooting President Garfield in 1881; anarchist Leon Czolgosz, who stalked Emma Goldman before shooting President McKinley in 1901; Giuseppe Zangara, who shot several bystanders but narrowly missed FDR in 1933; and Sam Byck, who tried and failed to hijack a commercial jet to crash into Nixon's White House.
A feel-good show this is not. But it soars with great music and lyrics by Sondheim (working with a book by John Weidman), and it is the devilish Sondheim of Sweeney Todd and Passion heard here, not the wistful romantic of Follies or A Little Night Music. In Assassins, Sondheim and Weidman explore the darkest stains on the human soul. They give their killers good reasons for killing (hating Mommy, loving celebrities, to name two). They give us Charlie Manson waltzing with Jodie Foster. And isn't that rich, and aren't they a pair? Send in the frowns.
These singing and dancing murderers wave firearms in time to the music. Each re-enacts his or her big moment with picture-perfect precision. Then one dies by hanging; one gets zapped in the electric chair. Now there's a showstopper. (Warning: The prop guns fire with deafening authenticity.)
There may never be a time in the American zeitgeist when Assassins feels right. The show debuted for a short run in New York just before the first Gulf War in 1991. It was scheduled for a bigger Broadway production in November 2001 then was canceled for obvious reasons. A Broadway opening at Studio 54 next March recently was announced, but even then may feel too soon for a musical that hits on such controversial, counterculture themes.
Under the direction of Brad Baker, the Quad C cast, which includes student actors and a few Dallas theater pros, attacks the difficult material with stunning ferocity. Their singing is strong (and who's harder to sing than Sondheim?), and their acting is solid. Joe Dennis makes a memorable Balladeer, doubling later as the twitchy Oswald. Greg Allen struts handsomely as the actor Booth, oozing theatrical charisma. Shannon Hathaway finds the right degree of balled-up tension as Fromme. Michael Maresca shows off an impressive singing voice and a flair for comedy as the bearded Guiteau, high-stepping up to the gallows.
On a red, white and blue postcard set by Craig "Yo" Erickson, this production offers a study in contrasts.
Some of Assassins is laugh-out-loud funny. Some scenes feel as intentionally tasteless as the "Springtime for Hitler" number in The Producers.One moment the cast belts out a boisterous Sondheim song, the next the music stops and the stage is occupied by only one or two characters talking through long sections of Weidman's book in speeches that threaten to spoil the momentum. Then comes the best moment in the show, a chilling monologue as the Sam Byck character (played by Dane Hoffman, a master at timing pauses) shares his thoughts while driving slowly toward his destiny in D.C.
Assassins is sneaky and profane. In this time of hyper-patriotic fervor, Quad C is brave to stage it. This piece of musical theater is sure to offend some by daring to give voice to an unspeakable truth--that our culture is as fascinated by the killers of the great and powerful leaders of our nation as it is by the leaders themselves. That, suggest Sondheim and Weidman, may be precisely why Booth, Oswald, Hinckley and the others dreamed of pulling the trigger in the first place.
The year is 1789; the place, a settlement somewhere near Sydney. British naval officers fight boredom by staging a play using as actors the murderers, thieves and prostitutes who've been shipped from England to a desolate penal colony. The idea is to give the prisoners their humanity back, to lift their spirits with a creative endeavor. Wertenbaker uses her play to make statements about the value of drama. "Theater should make you understand something new," she writes.
Based on a true story and the novel The Playmaker by Aussie writer Thomas Keneally, Our Country's Good observes the disintegration of the class system as sailors and prisoners interact during rehearsals. The stuffy lieutenant (Matthew Humphrey) falls for the convict star (Melody Stacy). A gentle sailor (Byron Melton) drives himself crazy with guilt over trysts with one of the colony's busiest whores (Genniva Nichols). Social order erodes when officers step up to object to the hanging of an illiterate prostitute (Betsy Roth) simply because she has witnessed a theft.