Assassins is a trip. And by that I mean it is a theatrical journey and a surreal experience.
Currently playing at Norfolk’s Generic Theater, the play (music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by John Weidman) imagines various historical figures interacting with each other on a plane of existence simultaneously removed from and encompassing reality. What all the figures have in common is that each of them attempted (some successfully, some not) to assassinate a president of the United States.
These assassins all interact with each other despite neither having actually met, nor, in many cases, having lived during the same time periods. The consistent elements that tie all the characters together are a fairground shooting gallery game in which all the assassins participate, the Proprietor of the game, a character who persuades and influences the assassins, and the Balladeer, a folk singer character who serves as a narrator and commentator. There are many characters in the play, and while some are well known historical figures (John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald), several others (such as Giuseppe Zangara and Sara Jane Moore) are now familiar mostly to history buffs. If you are unfamiliar with some of the lesser known incidents portrayed onstage, seeing the show will only teach you the barest minimum about the people involved, but that is enough; tough it is not necessary to do research in order to enjoy the production.
Director Shon Stacy and his team (assistant director Elizabeth Dickerson, stage manager Suzie Finnerty, and music director Karla D. Robinson) have put together a thoroughly enjoyable show.
Unfortunately, I arrived at the theatre to be greeted outside the front door by a dumpster overflowing with garbage. This does not create a favorable impression to a theatre goer, and makes a visitor wonder if attention to the show has been similarly neglected. Whether the removal of the refuse is the responsibility of the City of Norfolk or the Generic itself, I would urge management to try to find a solution to this problem. However, once inside I was happy to see that there has been no negligence regarding the set itself. Director Stacy is also the set designer, and with attention and care has created an set that gives the audience the experiences of entering a space that suggests, without being strictly realistic, a smoky carnival midway, a circus tent, and a presidential whistle stop. Upstage is a representation of the shooting gallery with a screen displaying, at various times, the targets for the game and also projections that illustrate and augment the play’s action. Specific scenes have few set pieces, mostly plain black boxes moved by the actors. This serves the play well since its settings and time periods are fluid. The few period specific props used help to flesh out the scenes.
There is no band or orchestra; the performers sing to recorded accompaniment. Sometimes the actors singing voices are difficult to understand. I do not know if this is because the music is overpowering them, because their voices might be distorted due to the use of body microphones in such a small space, or for some other reason. Fortunately, the problem does not present itself constantly, and there is no problem understanding the actors when they speak.
Charles Owrey’s sound design is a little problematic. The sounds of gunshots in the show (there are many) do not come from the prop guns utilizing blanks, but are recorded sound effects. Often, the “bang” is not properly synchronized with the actors’ movements, and it happens so often that it causes distraction. In addition, I would have preferred gunshots that were a touch louder, because I feel a weapon’s discharge is and should be depicted as inherently jarring, but I can see how that may have been distracting in another way. Also, in a scene set in the Texas Schoolbook Depository in 1963 a woman’s voice is played portraying a newscaster reporting on President Kennedy’s trip to Dallas. Although female newscasters were not unknown in 1963, they were unusual enough for this choice to be a curious one. It’s especially jarring to hear a woman saying, “The president has been shot,” while seeing a projection of archival footage featuring legendary newscaster Walter Cronkite reporting on the assassination. Perhaps Owrey or Stacy wanted to emphasize the unrealistic nature of the scene (and the play as a whole). Or there might be a tie to the fact that the Proprietor, a part written for a man, is played in this production by the curvy and pulchritudinous Alyssa Sortino. If either of these is the case, I understand the choice intellectually, but not viscerally, and would have preferred to hear a male voice.
Costumes for this production are concurrently very good and a touch sparse. All of the main players are clothed in outfits that are period and character appropriate, and some of those outfits are absolutely fantastic. However, the costumes of the ensemble/chorus members often seem incomplete and lacking in detail, particularly in the crowd scenes. For example, before 1960, nearly all women wore hats when going out into public, and in two particular scenes in this show (set in 1901 and 1933) ladies’ hats were sorely lacking. Some of the women’s clothing in the same two scenes also seemed a little too “every day” since the scenes depicted citizens meeting U.S. presidents. Perhaps designer Katelyn Jackson was hampered by a lack of resources or perhaps she made these choices to put more of the audience’s focus on the main characters. Although I wished for a bit more, the costume design is still quite good.
All of the actors who play the title characters do a nice job, with each working hard to make sure his or her character is a true individual. Their interpretations result in the audience seeing each assassin distinctly, and therefore seeing each assassin’s story distinctly. Anthony Falcon as John Wilkes Booth strikes just the right balance of charm and fervor as the “patron saint” of the group. Garney Johnson as Samuel Byck (who attempted to kill Richard Nixon in 1974) has a particularly hard job with two long monologues, but manages to make each one dynamic and varied, an especially difficult task in his second speech, which he must deliver while his character is stuck behind the wheel of a car. Despite the serious subject matter, the show has many comedic moments, some of the best being in the scenes between Toni Zito as Sarah Jane Moore and Alexandra Shephard as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme. The scenes imagine what the two women who both tried to kill President Gerald Ford would have talked about had they ever met. Shephard also participates in one of the strongest songs in the show, “Unworthy of Your Love,” sung in duet with Nathan Jacques as John Hinckley, Jr.
The remaining ensemble is full of talented performers who go far in helping create the world of the play. While this is not the sort of musical that has choreographed dance numbers, the staging and execution of “The Ballad of Czolgosz,” depicting Leon Czolgosz working his way through the crowd in order to shoot President McKinley, is a clever and strong use of physical movement. Later in the play, Shawna Lawhorn, as a housewife, gets a moment to shine while she and her fellow ensemble members sing “Something Just Broke,” about the effect of the Kennedy assassination on ordinary people.
Assassins is not a documentary or a biography. I think it is more of an imagined exploration of the motives of characters that are based on real people. If you are, like me, a student of history and find yourself, while watching the show, asking yourself questions such as, “Why isn’t famous anarchist Emma Goldman wearing her ever-present pince-nez?” “Doesn’t Squeaky look a little too glam for a hippie chick earth mother?” “Wasn’t the gun that Booth used to kill Lincoln a lot smaller?” you should remind yourself that this is, beyond anything, a fantasy. It is a fantasy that uses truth as a tool to tell its story, but the truth is not its only tool. The Generic Theater can be proud of its part in telling this compelling and fascinating tale.
Assassins runs thru Sept 17 at the Generic Theater. Thurs, Fri, Sat 8:00pm, Sun 2:30pm. Tix: $18 Reg, $15 Student/Senior/Military, $13 each Groups 10+. You can call the box office at (757) 441-2160, but the better way to get your tickets is to click here and buy now. Go see it, then let your opinions fly in the comments!