Short North Stage Ends 2017-18 Season With Dynamic, Riveting ‘Assassins’
Short North Stage ends their season with a rifle blast of rage in a magnificent production of Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and John Weidman’s (book) interrogation of the bitter irony at the heart of the American dream, Assassins, directed by Gina Handy Minyard.
Assassins uses magic realism and metaphor to tease out the commonalities between those who killed or tried to kill a President of the United States, including John Wilkes Booth (Travis Smith), Charles Guiteau (Scott Emerson), Leon Czolgosz (Nick Lingnofski), Giuseppe Zangara (Steven Michael Mooney), Sam Byck (Todd Covert), Squeaky Fromme (Megan Valle), Sarah Jane Moore (Vera Ryan Cremeans) and John Hinckley (Skyler McNeely).
Assassins considers the peculiar tendency of would-be assassins to be people on the margins, with no hope of using their act to gain political power or capital, and it decides that these explosions are the flip side of the too-pat description of the American dream. “Anyone can be president” looks like a lie very early on to a lot of people looking to focus their rage. It avoids chronology for a more impressionist take, shuffled in time with interactions that never could have occurred. Gina Handy Minyard’s production celebrates and leans into this sense of unreality.
Minyard’s brilliant in the round take places all seats and cast on the Garden’s stage. The stage is decked out like a shooting gallery at a carnival with the center of the floor cast as a giant presidential seal chopped into steps, turned into stairs, and trampled. She plays up the Brecht here with physicality, directness and the sense that the stage is not something to be hidden or dressed up in faux-naturalism. Minyard – with sets by Jon Sabo, sound by Jarod Callander, lighting by Adam Zeek, and costumes by Edward Carignan, seeds, like Johnny Appleseed but also like a minefield, with bitter funny-sad sight gags as early as a child (Leia Gersing) in the opening sequence handing out pistols to the adults… with that “security innovation,” the clear backpack.
One thing that struck me hardest was the robust use of The Proprietor (Melissa Brobeck). Besides leading the group in the tart, sarcastic opening, “Everybody’s Got the Right” and reappearing on the chilling statement of intent “Another National Anthem,” Brobeck appears throughout as an instigator, an angel of death, and the hand of systems the characters perceive but don’t comprehend. Brobeck – also the catalyst for dazzling hearbreak as Emma Goldman – is perfect here. Her rich voice and subtle motions emphasize the seduction of America and the darker side of the bargain it asks, down to her representing the bystanders on the aching final song, “Something Just Broke.”.
The Balladeer (Patrick Beasley), our more direct guide and the interrogator of the evils here, also does a great job with a rich, all-American voice. Beasley knows how to deploy his disarming “aw, shucks,” demeanor and when to land a blow, as when he taunts Booth with, “Some say it was your voice had gone, some say it was booze. Some say it wasn’t Lincoln, John, you’d merely had a slew of bad reviews,” or Guiteau with “You could be an angel” as he dances up the gallows.
Because Assassins posits these would be killers as America taken to its extreme (and maybe harbingers of America in extremis), the thorny and catchy Sondheim songs are a kaleidoscopic look at the history of American popular song and the cast – and four-piece band under the musical direction of Zac DelMonte who sound like a chamber orchestra – shine on these rapid shifts and disjunctions. Highlights include the brass-band acid bath of self-satisfaction at the common people “How I Saved Roosevelt” with Mooney’s Zangara raging that he doesn’t even get photographers at his execution; the wild and intricate barbershop quartet view on capitalism and the alleged leveling of the playing field with firearms of Smith, Lingnofski, Emerson, and Cremeans; and the sappy ‘70s rock recast as a tribute to an inherent pathetic nature of Valle’s Fromme and McNeely’s Hinckley to their distant lovers on “Unworthy of Your Love.”
There’s not even something close to a weak performance anywhere here. Todd Covert shines as the hollow heart of these broken people, Sam Byck in the classic Santa suit ready to crash a plane into the Nixon White House. Covert tears into this role, all the character’s pathetic nature – unable to phrase his deep torment except through snatches of song (including those Sondheim wrote with one recipient of Byck’s audiotapes, Leonard Bernstein) – and inchoate rage given a physical, staggering presence. His snarling a repeated, “Where’s my prize?” as the assassins gather like storm clouds on “Another National Anthem” and then his shout into the void, “You know why I did it? Because there isn’t any Santa Claus,” are as chilling as this kind of theatre gets and a brilliant lesson in irony as a hand pulling the heart of things from the rib cage, not a shield or a hiding place.
Emerson strikes the right chords as Guiteau, the charming lunatic until you realize how deeps the cracks go, he imbues some of that Chaplin pathos into his slapstick showcase. Lingnofski is masterful here, his Czolgosz a throbbing, open wound of frustrated dreams and no future in front. Smith’s Booth has the single best song on the piece and the best lines – “Murder is a tawdry, little crime. It’s born of greed or lust or liquor. Adulterers and shopkeepers get murdered,” and Smith knows exactly how to play it. He understands Booth as actor, the Booth desperate to not be a has-been, and his eyebrow-raised anachronism that “Willy Loman is a part that [he] could never play” is a punch in the gut.
All the dazzling singing and charm you’d expect from a Short North Stage production is here in spades, deployed on a look at the colder, darker pieces of the last two centuries. If you have a taste or irony or a stomach for brutality, there isn’t a better pick out there. It’s a good time to be a Sondheim fan in Columbus.
Assassins runs through June 24 with shows at 8:00 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Saturday, and 3:00 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and more info, visit shortnorthstage.org