Assassins Gets Worthy Treatment and Teaches Valuable Lesson



Those who have felled American Presidents get their due in the Stephen Sondheim-John Weidman musical Assassins, which was performed in a great production by the Mimes and Mummers.

The show is made up of short vignettes that set the scene for each killer. It chronicles not only marquee names like John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald, but also less well-known assassins. Charles Guiteau, the man who shot President James Garfield, turns out to be a showboating fame-seeker. Leon Czolgosz, who killed President William McKinley, was influenced by anarchists. Giuseppe Zangara, who attempted to kill Franklin Delano Roosevelt, is in thrall to the voices in his head. Samuel Byck tries to crash a jet into Nixon’s White House to get his name in the history books. “Squeaky” Fromme and Sara Jane Moore each attempt to take Gerald Ford’s life in search of fame. Finally, John Hinckley tries to kill Ronald Reagan just to impress Jodie Foster.

The show’s director, Stephen Agosto, keeps the show’s pace tight and sobering, overseeing the dark action in the Collins Theatre with skill. The set is simple yet effective, and everything on it, from prop guns to a KFC container, eventually serves a purpose.

Sondheim’s brilliant score, which includes ballads for some assassins as well as group numbers, is skillfully interpreted by the pit band. Every line of Weidman’s book lands, thanks to the talent of a great cast.

The group of assassins is a sordid but talented group. Mike Dahlgren emcees the show as the Balladeer, telling these assassins’ stories with heart and feeling. When he transforms into Lee Harvey Oswald in the second half, he lays bare the inner turmoil the man felt before shooting President Kennedy. Kevin Horan is an effective John Wilkes Booth, expertly showing both his inner pain and determination. Vincent Pasquill makes Guiteau eerily entertaining; the audience is entertained and a bit repulsed. As Czolgosz and Zangara, respectively, John Schule and Nick Motlenski effectively show the turmoil the men faced before making their decisions. As Fromme and More, Pam Zazzarino and Sarah Kellman function as great comic relief, ineptly trying to gain fame to impress their men. Phil Reilly is meekly menacing as he plays Hinckley, and his duet with Fromme, “Unworthy of Your Love,” is a show highlight.

In a world rife with news of gun violence, the first sounds of shots in this show may make the audience jump. The right theatrical tone is given to the violence, however, making it much less jarring as the show goes on.

The Mimes’ accomplishment is even more impressive when one considers the cavalier way in which guns are portrayed in most areas of American culture. This was explored in a recent New York Times series called “Big Bang Theories: Violence on Screen,” which set out to explain why “flying bullets and macabre deaths have long made for compelling viewing.”

Film critic A.O. Scott posits that shows like “The Walking Dead” give viewers the idea of a new, more exciting life. Being “a cowboy, a maverick lawman or a postapocalyptic zombie hunter promises clearer dangers and keener pleasures than the compromises and routines that most of us face from day to day.”

Fellow film critic Manohla Dargis also thinks this is true on the silver screen, and that movies push boundaries by glamorizing violence and vengeance. She cites a study from the website All Outta Bubblegum, which tracks deaths in movies, that finds that “the ‘killcount’ for Marvel’s The Avengers, the highest grossing movie last year, is 964.”

Figures like that are sobering reminders that America needs to start looking at violence in its culture in new ways. The existence of guns cannot be denied, but these weapons cannot be glamorized on the screen or stage. This production of Assassins presents a good model to follow, acknowledging the violence inherent in the show’s plot, but using it to further the story and make the audience think rather than using it as just shock value.

The Mimes and Mummers have done right by a great American musical. Assassins is fun and unsettling in just the right amounts, and provides a good model for how the arts should move forward following tragedy.