- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 8, 2006

Stephen Sondheim’s musical “Assassins” elevates a group of misfits to the level of art in its stirring, often forlornly funny look at nine infamous American assassins who successfully and unsuccessfully tried to shoot a president.

At Signature Theatre, director Joe Calarco asks us, if not to embrace these anti-heroes of U.S. history, to at least consider that the assassins are part of society. This brash, confrontational production reflects some of America’s most painfully violent moments back at the audience, much the way we see our faces reflected among the dead on the Wall at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The result is almost uncomfortably intimate, as Signature’s production blurs the lines between audience and actor, assassin and citizen.

“Assassins” begins with the kingpin of them all, John Wilkes Booth (Will Gartshore), whose assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865 remains a dark and sorrowful event in history. As dashingly portrayed by Mr. Gartshore, Booth was a matinee idol gone wrong, whose gesture to make the North pay for the South’s woes was both theatrical and immensely tragic. Drama and reality mingle in “The Ballad of Booth,” a simple, rollicking folk song that contains the most brutal of lyrics, contending, among other things, that Booth’s motivations lay in his being a washed-up actor.

Looking for someone to keep the assassins in the public eye, Booth is aided by the Balladeer (Stephen Gregory Smith). Together, they wind their way through the various contenders, including Leon Czolgosz (Tally Sessions), a deranged follower of Emma Goldman who shot William McKinley, and Giuseppe Zangara (Peter Joshua), who was aiming for Franklin D. Roosevelt but missed, killing Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak instead.

It is a peculiar thing to admit, but one of the most entertaining assassins is Charles Guiteau (Mika Duncan), a deluded jack-of-all-trades who murdered James A. Garfield. On the scaffold before his execution, he recited a poem he had written, “I Am Going to the Lordy” — which Mr. Sondheim uses to chilling effect in the cakewalk song, “The Ballad of Guiteau.” Mr. Duncan plays the jaunty lunatic to the hilt.

Freewheeling humor also abounds in Donna Migliaccio’s portrayal of homicidal hausfrau Sara Jane Moore, who fortunately was too distracted by her various suburban neuroses to send Gerald R. Ford to an early grave. Miss Migliaccio is riotous as the addled Moore, who brings her young son to the assassination attempt (couldn’t find a sitter) and accidentally shoots her dog and stuffs him in her oversized purse.

Erin Driscoll plays Squeaky Fromme, a follower of Charles Manson who also tried to shoot President Ford. Miss Driscoll is a bit shrill and histrionic in her low-key ballad, “Unworthy of Your Love” — a duet with John Hinckley (a too-tentative Matt Conner) — but she is alarmingly strange as the lost flower child.

Andy Brownstein is comically compelling as Samuel Byck, a schlub in a dirty Santa suit who expresses his frustrations in chummy, kvetching tapes he records and sends to Leonard Bernstein and Richard M. Nixon. Byck attempted to hijack a plane in 1974, which he planned to crash into the White House, an eerie portent of the events of September 11.

As riveting as these killers are, they are not what Booth is searching for. His answer comes in Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald (Mr. Smith). In a devastating scene, the set becomes the Texas Book Depository and Oswald is not alone but surrounded by Booth and his other soon-to-be compadres, who urge him to take his hated place in our collective memory and thus allow the other assassins to take on relevance beyond footnotes. Mr. Smith’s singing as the Balladeer seemed weak and unassuming at times, but as Oswald he has a coiled, bewildered majesty.

Throughout the show, the actors run and scream in the aisles, which is startling the first time but becomes somewhat slapstick after a while. By the time Oswald shows up in the second act, you’re pretty much fed up with the device and wish everybody would just go back up onstage where they belong.

Although Mr. Sondheim’s music is sublime, it is merciful that “Assassins” runs just under two hours without an intermission. A person can take just so much truth.

***

WHAT: “Assassins” by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman

WHERE: Signature Theatre, 3806 S. Four Mile Run Drive, Arlington

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through July 23.

TICKETS: $31 to $55

PHONE: 800/955-5566

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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