Thursday, October 3, 2013
Theater review: Experience history through the eyes of America’s renown Assassins
How many famous faces do you recognize?
DALLAS I just celebrated a milestone birthday, and in process of walking very slowly towards that proverbial hill, I am reminded of George Bernard Shaw’s famous quote, “Youth is wasted on the young.” I often feel I squandered my education a bit, primarily because I focused on the end result (graduation) rather than the process as a whole. My days as a classroom student are now long past, but let me tell you this: I got schooled last night by Bruce R. Coleman and his Assassins. The subject matter interests me to the point of distraction and Theatre Three’s production affirmed there is still plenty for me to learn in this second act of life. Why not start with politics, intrigue, anarchy and obsession?
The subject matter obviously captivated Stephen Sondheim as well, who penned the music and lyrics based on an idea by playwright Charles Gilbert, Jr. and the subsequent book by John Weidman. Assassins is a revue-style musical that focuses on the motivations and personal histories of a group of nine Presidential assassins (only some of whom were actually successful). The scenes play out as vignettes specific to each assassin, with stylized songs representing the eras depicted in the story. Sondheim also threw in some of his signature pastiche by blending standards such as “Hail to the Chief” and even a portion of the “Star Spangled Banner” to solidify the across-time feel of the musical.
Music Director Vonda K. Bowling helmed a talented group of entertainers who sounded much larger than their individual instruments. As with most of Sondheim’s catalog, this music is far from easy to master, though this cast and orchestra handled it quite well. A couple of the men in the cast struggled with the lowest notes but the harmonies and the a cappella work were musically on point. The sound at Theatre Three is tricky because the audience hears it from such distinctly different angles. I’ve seen shows at T3 before where the vocalists were impossible to hear based on their own lack of projection and others where the band overpowered the singing. Neither was the case here. I sat on the top row of the north side of the theater and was able to fully hear and understand the lyrics and line delivery.
As an audience member it’s always fun for me to see how the theater’s in-the-round arrangement will affect the staging and set design. While this set was simpler than many I’ve seen at Theatre Three, it was well-suited to the general austerity of the business at hand, and allowed the detailed props to do much of the leg work. Set Designer David Walsh covered the major side stage in a red and white carnival tent with a narrow pathway and railing in front of it that allowed the actors to pass and perform on a higher physical level. The words “SHOOT & WIN” were spelled out in lights above the railing, and each time one of the assassins succeeded in his task, the “WIN” flashed.
The ground level beneath the big top hosted three smooth, paneled doors that opened in concert. These doors were at different times the backdrop for a carnival game, the Virginia farm where John Wilkes Booth hid from his captors, and even Dealey Plaza. The minor side stage was painted to resemble the carnival tent, though its main purpose was to host a velvet-draped, two-person box sitting area. The box seat was eerily empty throughout the show, though the menacing patriotic clown that hung above the box was ever present. This maniacal Bozo came to life when an assassin hit his mark, its nose flashing red and its mechanical arms moving up and down with the excitement of the bulls eye win. The minor side stage also included a mobile staircase that was used to transport one of the actors to the other side of the theater during a particularly entertaining scene. The theater floor was painted with a few random stars here and there, but its focal point was a beautiful, splintered Presidential seal.
Lighting Designer Amanda West used the carnival theme throughout the space, including some brightly-colored bulbs on strands that hung down from the rafters. The theater was dark much of the time, playing on the general mood of the material, which heightened the effect of using such bright colors to highlight the characters and set pieces here and there. The Balladeer sang in shadow during portions of “The Ballad of Booth” which was a little early in the show to try and guess who was singing what, but the subdued choices were effective overall.
Mr. Coleman also lent his talents in the arena of costume design. Each assassin was dressed appropriately for his or her era, with Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme in a brightly-patterned maxi dress, and John Wilkes Booth in a tailored black suit with a purple satin vest. While Samuel Byck was festooned a little more generically in his unkempt Santa suit, the ensemble wore crisp, clean, turn-of-the-century duds during the scene at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo. The costumes looked as if they were tailor-made for the bodies of their respective actors, which enhanced the overall production value as well as the audience’s involvement in the story.
As with all the props in this show, the assemblage of firearms was impressive. I don’t know enough about guns to speak to the authenticity of all the replicas used in this production (no hate mail, please!), though I can tell you that the rifle Oswald used in his climactic scene looked very similar to the 6.5mm Carcano that purportedly killed President Kennedy. In general it seemed that pistols were used for pistols, and revolvers were used for revolvers, though the individual calibers and barrel lengths may have varied from their historical counterparts.
While on the subject of props, Mr. Coleman designed and built one of the most interesting and symbolic pieces of the show, the Presidential head and hand. The oversized head, which looked to be painstakingly carved from foam, didn’t resemble any of the presidents specifically, but rather symbolized the largesse of the office. The matching hand was raised and open and constantly ready to receive a handshake, mirroring the gesture of many of the presidents prior to their being shot.
There were several noteworthy performances in this production, though the standout vocal contribution was, appropriately, that of The Balladeer, Christopher J. Deaton. His presence was almost secondary to the individual assassins based solely on the nature of the story, but his lack of stage time was insignificant when compared to the impact of his voice. Mr. Deaton projected beautifully and his tone, timbre and control were unmatched in this production.
Paul Taylor, as Charles Guiteau, the assassin of President Garfield, provided much of the show’s comic relief. With his unruly beard and his spritely manner, Mr. Taylor seemed to buzz and flit across the theater. Though he was destined for a tragic end, Guiteau’s positive energy (if that can be said of a Presidential assassin) balanced the more brooding characters, such as Leon Czolgosz. Mr. Taylor even danced a jig to meet his character’s fateful end. The back and forth between his poem recitation and the actual song during “The Ballad of Guiteau” was an enjoyable way to end Act I.
As Leon Czolgosz, President McKinley’s assassin, Bryan Lewis made a remarkable impression as the burgeoning anarchist. An immigrant son and seasoned factory worker by the age of 13, Czolgosz grew impatient with the differences between the classes. Mr. Lewis evoked an emotional character whose imbalance was understandable, almost permissible even, given the circumstances of his life. His solo vocal performance during the “The Gun Song” was rich and full of tenebrous subtext.
It is written that Giuseppe Zangara suffered extreme abdominal pain after an appendectomy that may have contributed to his delusional state and to his failed attempt on the life of President-Elect Franklin Roosevelt. Sergio Antonio Garcia reveled in his portrayal of the Italian bricklayer, though he was forced to compete somewhat with his own swarthy, fabulous hairdo. Mr. Garcia’s voice seemed to tire during portions of “How I Saved Roosevelt,” though the constant jerking and pitching required of him during the final moments of the song may have been a contributing factor.
What are the chances that two would-be Presidential assassins both knew Charles Manson, one from his childhood and the other as a follower of his fanatical doctrine? Thus is the story of Sara Jane Moore and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, both of whom made separate attempts on President Ford’s life in September of 1975. (Interestingly, both women survived prison and are currently out on parole.)
Daron Cockerell, as Fromme, was lithe and ethereal as the hippy cult member who was disturbed by the plight of the California redwoods, and Marisa Diotalevi was flat out hysterical as the off balance mother of four, Moore, who attempted to murder the President because … well … I’m actually still unclear as to her motive. The two women played off each other well and each provided a separate and clear interpretation of their respective characters. Ms. Diotalevi’s timing was impeccable, and matched with cans of Tab cola, a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken and a stuffed dog on a leash; she definitely boasted the best props of the show. Further, Moore’s son Billy, played with youthful, bratty abandon by Mason Bowling, contributed to one of the show’s funniest scenes.
Ms. Cockerell was part of another successful show duo when paired with Aaron White on “Unworthy of Your Love.” Their voices worked together nicely, each highlighting emotions with finesse and accuracy. Mr. White’s portrayal of John Hinckley, Jr., the Dallas native who shot and injured President Reagan in 1981, was genuinely creepy, and I mean that in the best sense. From his shaggy bangs, to his large-framed eyeglasses, to his oversized Army jacket, Mr. White was the epitome of stalker chic. Hinckley’s obsession with actress Jodie Foster played well in context against Fromme’s single-minded allegiance to Manson, a connection I never would have pieced together on my own.
Much like The Balladeer, The Proprietor’s purpose is to move the action along and provide a common thread between the assassins. The Proprietor’s personification of the American Dream, while markedly different for each assassin, represented the goal they each strove for but failed to achieve. Jason Kane struck an imposing figure as he smoked and stalked around the theater, popping up here and there as a constant reminder and instigator. During his turns as a radio announcer, Mr. Kane managed his cues with pinpoint accuracy.
While his actual role in Assassins is somewhat limited, the entire show ramps up to the appearance of Lee Harvey Oswald late in Act II. Oswald is arguably the most recognizable of this crew and Sam Swanson embodied his character simply, in blue jeans and a plain white T-shirt. The scene in the Texas School Book Depository is certainly fictionalized to include all of the assassins, but it effectively symbolized the mounting pressure on Oswald as his fellow assassins taunted him into action.
Oswald may be the most renowned Presidential assassin in American history but John Wilkes Booth was the first; as Assassins points out, it all started with Booth. It is always a hoot to watch actors play actors, and Gregory Lush’s portrayal of President Lincoln’s assassin was no exception. History tells us of Booth’s staunch anti-abolition stance, though it is rumored that his plot to kill Lincoln stemmed more from his desire for fame … and possibly even a string of bad theatrical reviews. Mr. Lush effortlessly switched between actor playing actor and actual political malcontent. His role was physically staged throughout, though he was especially active when waving Mr. Coleman’s head and head prop in representation of whichever President’s life was about to be compromised. If Mr. Swanson’s Oswald was the end game of the show, Mr. Lush’s Booth was the backbone.
Whew, that’s it, right? Eight assassins in total? Oh, wait! I’ve forgotten Samuel Byck. Byck may be considered one of the lesser known assassins, especially since he didn’t succeed in killing President Nixon in 1974, but my post-Assassins mind will not soon forget him. I was absolutely entranced by the two lengthy monologues Terry Dobson delivered in this role. Mr. Dobson’s portrait of Byck walked that fine line between genius and madness, where the cassette-taped ramblings of a politically-minded "every man" turned into the manifesto of a killer. His vocal inflections and facial expressions were vibrant and colorful (to go along with his language), and out of all the fine performances in this production, Mr. Dobson’s was the one that fully suspended my disbelief and took me to another place.
While the subject matter of Assassins doesn’t fit within the boundaries of my standard musical preference, I am thankful for this theater-going experience. The assassins raised their guns to the audience in a couple of scenes, and while I knew they were props, I was unnerved just the same. I even found myself shifting in my seat to escape the barrel. No question, Theatre Three and their Assassins shoot and win.
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