Artists try to help us comprehend the unthinkable by deconstructing a violent event or by satirizing it, when facing it head on is too painful. The murder of six million is too horrific to fully contemplate. How many of us would watch Schindler’s List again? Israel Horovitz’s clever LEBENSRAUM (@ Happy Medium Theatre through May 25th) approaches the subject of the Holocaust from a decidedly odd but nevertheless compelling angle.
Horovitz invents a contemporary Germany where a chancellor might announce a restoration of “living space” to six million Jews, an invitation to reestablish a community in Germany—as amends for the six million-plus who were put to death in WWII. He maintains that his country is “drowning in a sea of guilt” but as you might suspect, not everyone agrees with him. Some forty characters, pro and con, are portrayed by just three actors, in a whirlwind production helmed by Brett Marks.
The action unfolds so quickly that at one point, R. Nelson Lacey plays two characters in the same scene, at the same time, in furious debate with each other. He manages this by switching hats, voices and body language. It’s a marvelous, hilarious feat which happily injects some humor into a sad but predictable story of history repeating itself. Audrey Lynn Sylvia and Michael Underhill provide the sweet, star crossed romance of the piece, as well as all the townspeople, immigrants and politicians who rush to take sides.
Germany isn’t the only country grappling with its past. Stephen Sondheim makes the case in ASSASSINS (@ Hovey Players through May 31st) that our national obsession with guns, violence and presidential assassination began a long time ago, specifically with John Wilkes Booth. Sondheim and book writer John Weidman were roundly criticized for glorifying violence when ASSASSINS debuted (and immediately closed) but opinions change over time and the piece is now accepted as a sardonic indictment of gun violence.
When you see ASSASSINS now, you realize how prescient Sondheim and Weidman were in 1991. For one thing, their shooting gallery proprietor hands customers a gun as a cure for “feeling misunderstood”—and this was years before the current epidemic of teenage boys who shoot their classmates for exactly that reason.
And if your heart doesn’t skip a beat when you hear about the would-be assassin who planned to “drop a 747 on the White House” twenty-seven years before 9-11, then you’ve been living on another planet. (Ironically, a second attempt to stage the musical was scheduled for the fall of 2001 but the attacks of September 11th ended those plans.)
The musical just won’t work without a charismatic John Wilkes Booth. He’s the “connection” for all the assassins and he’s the sole reason that Lee Harvey Oswald decides to throw in with them. He’s a presence throughout the musical, just watching…and waiting. He’s the center of the universe and you can’t take your eyes off him: Ronny Pompeo’s performance is nothing short of thrilling. You know he’s a villain but you’re drawn to his life force and you’re astonished that you feel sympathy for the devil.
Bill Stambaugh, too, turns in an unforgettable performance, a comic coup, as wannabe-assassin Sam Byck, who makes tape recordings for politicians (and for Sondheim collaborator Leonard Bernstein), threatening mayhem as payback for his rotten life. Would you believe, Stambaugh elevates shouting to an art form!
And who would have imagined that the Squeaky Fromme and Sara Jane Moore scenes would be so delightful! (I’ve seen more than half a dozen productions of ASSASSINS and this is the first time those scenes have worked for me.) Rebecca Shor is deliciously funny as the wacky Moore (a modern day descendant of Mrs. Lovett) and paired with Jessica Dee as the bonky Fromme, they’re gangbusters.
Director Kristin Hughes’ vision includes a kinder, gentler Oswald and Christhian Mancinas-Garcia makes you truly believe he was a pawn (whether you buy the lone gunman theory or not). It’s a fresh approach and it pays off. Hughes has a number of small touches which make a big (positive) impact on the musical. She ups the ante for visceral emotion in the piece, too. I was in the last row in the intimate fifty seat house and when those guns were pointed in my direction, I felt my skin crawl and my stomach tighten until the choreography shifted their crosshairs.
Stephen Peters and Bethany Aiken make the ensemble numbers pop. (In fact, the singing makes you forget all about a little orchestral lapse at the top of the show.) The characterizations are so well drawn, the pastiche material is handled so well and the performers are so in tune with each other that this may be the best ensemble work I’ve seen this year.