Casts of Killers

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 Theatre at 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.

"A play is a tiny world in itself," says a character in Our Country's Good, now at Southern Methodist University's Bob Hope Theatre. This peculiar drama by British playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker presents another cast of killers, living a world away and several centuries ago.

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.

The SMU student production, directed by Michael Connolly, uses graduate and undergraduate actors. R. Brian Normoyle is a pleasure to watch as the major who adamantly opposes the convict drama. Schuyler Scott Mastain provides welcome comic relief as the hammiest actor in the play-within-the-play.

The cast crackles with youthful fire and intensity, but overall the acting comes up short. Bogged down with badly executed dialects, some of the convicts can't be understood. And maybe it's because it's SMU, but these prisoners, described as "vice-ridden vermin," look more like catalog models. The women wear form-fitting dresses with nary a sweat stain, and their lustrous hair and straight white teeth gleam under the lights. Sailors, supposedly living far from bathtubs and barbers, sport perfect skin and shiny hair. Their uniforms are as crisp and starched as choir robes. Everybody looks Zestfully clean.

"People who don't pay attention should not go to the theater," says a character in Our Country's Good. Well, some of us pay close attention to distracting details. (And paying attention to full disclosure, I teach part time at SMU, but not in the theater department.)

In a week filled with homicidal dramas, it's a relief to find a comedy, and seeing Greater Tuna again is like a reunion with old friends. Stars Joe Sears and Jaston Williams, back for a run at the Arts District Theatre, have been killing audiences for 20 years with their hilarious portrayals of the entire population of a tiny, mythical Texas town. These guys never disappoint.

Written with director Ed Howard, Greater Tuna remains timeless in the way it perfectly captures the deliberate cadences of rural life. Like characters in Christopher Guest's film Waiting for Guffman, the citizens of Tuna live in blissful ignorance. A winning topic in the Tuna essay contest is "Human Rights: Why Bother?" The local chapter of Smut Snatchers of the New Order wants the word "poot" out of the school dictionaries. Censorship is their inalienable right. In Tuna, the Patriot Act would be as sacred as the Ten Commandments.

But at the core of Tuna there lies a murder. A wayward teenage boy (just one of Williams' finely honed personae) carefully plots revenge on the man who sent him to reform school. When mean old Judge Buckner turns up dead wearing a one-piece fringed Dale Evans cowgirl swimsuit, it's no accident. You might say it's a delicious Tuna surprise.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner

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