After seeing FUDGE Theater’s finely chiseled production of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s ASSASSINS (playing through July 20th ironically at the Arsenal Center), I have changed my mind about the piece. It’s performed in the small black box space at Arsenal which means those weapons pointed at the audience are mighty close. At other productions in larger venues, I’ve been able to consider the guns part of the choreography.
Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I felt the immediacy of Sondheim’s indictment of the American dream. I’m afraid that until last evening, I dismissed ASSASSINS because of its glorification (I thought) of the shooters. But for the musical, I certainly wouldn’t know all their names. (“Were reborn, through you,” they say to Oswald, [not just] “footnotes in a history book.”
Now I get it. Sondheim is screaming his head off (in song) about America’s glorification of the gun. How prescient and apt for right now, when no one can get any form of gun control legislation enacted. As I write this, Trayvon Martin’s murderer just has been found not guilty, yet another injustice in a long line of social injustices which plague our “sweet land of liberty.”
Weidman depicts the assassins (seemingly) driven toward violence by their own experience with American inequality (as well as spoofing the downright crazies)—and Sondheim provides the musical pastiche to drive home the absurdity of our perverted “constitutional rights.” Talk about aforethought of malice, ASSASSINS (which features a wannabe who plans to fly a plane into the White House) was scheduled for a Broadway run when 9/11 happened. The musical didn’t open.
Director Joey DeMita and music director Steven Bergman set exactly the right tone for the musical: not too vaudevillian, not too sardonic, just earnest enough so we can consider the men behind the madness. After all, “why?” is always the question when we hear about a shooting. The pundits say we can never know—but Weidman and Sondheim give it a shot (so to speak).
Kelton Washington makes a fine carnival barker, chasing up customers for his Presidential shooting gallery and Ian Flynn as the cockeyed optimist who shoots President Garfield has a wonderful turn alternating from “the bright side” to the dark side as he mounts the hangman’s scaffold. Ben Gold makes the McKinley assassin eminently pitiable, following Emma Goldman (Cat Claus) like a puppy dog. Ben Sharton’s Hinckley, Ben Oehlkers would-be Roosevelt assassin, Patrick Harris’ Nixon avenger, all give strong performances. (The two women are not as cleanly written as the men are but Katie Preisig and Catherine Lee Christie make it work.)
Best of all are Jim Petty as a dashing John Wilkes Booth, whose prayer just before he dies, is a thing of beauty in Petty’s hands—and Jared Walsh as the charming narrator whose ballads simply melt in his mouth and whose Oswald is confused at best, merely part of the legacy set in motion by Booth. There are several chills to be had in FUDGE’s ASSASSINS. If “Another National Anthem” doesn’t make your blood run cold then Sondheim’s distorted “Hail to the Chief” will. Why not give the musical another visit.