Austin Durant

Making a Killing

Review of Assassins, Yale Repertory Theatre

Adam Shatz, writing in the London Review of Books in early March, conjectured that many in the so-called blue states have been “having criminal thoughts and violent fantasies since 9 November,” specifically, fantasies about the president’s death, “natural or otherwise.” Without coming right out and saying it, Shatz was entertaining the notion that many otherwise law-abiding and non-violent Americans are fantasizing about political assassination. “These thoughts are, in a way, a tribute to the power Trump has over the imagination,” Shatz writes, but if we shift away from our specific moment to a more general view of our country’s history, we could substitute “the president” for “Trump” in that statement. We might wonder how it is that killing one man—a man not born to power nor claiming it as a birthright but simply holding an office, in essence, doing a job for a limited time—can come to seem the end-all of political action. Killing him, removing him violently from office, becomes, in such a view, a victory for the cause of freedom. Or at least a liberation of one’s burning resentment.

Because, as Shatz avers, such ideas are in the air, James Bundy’s revival of Assassins, book by John Weidman, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, couldn’t be more timely. Proposed for the season over a year ago, the show was slated to open after the first 100 days of whoever won in November, and a very real strength of Assassins is that it is ambivalent enough to be relevant to any sitting president. Though, in 2016, one could assume that the hatred or the embrace of any winner of that year’s presidential race would be, in 2017, unprecedentedly—or unpresidentedly—passionate. Such is the case, and Assassins is a fanciful, tuneful, and entertaining look at one of the many dark sides of U.S. exceptionalism.

As Bundy notes in the playbill, “no fewer than thirteen of our misguided countrymen and women have taken it upon themselves to strike at presidents. This show reckons with nine of them….” As portrayed here, the question of what guides their misguided steps is different in every case, and the outcomes vary as well—from killing to wounding to failing utterly—but, in each case, the would-be assassin gets written into history, paired with the fortunes of the respective target.

Charles Guiteau (Stephen DeRosa), Proprietor (Austin Durant) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Charles Guiteau (Stephen DeRosa), Proprietor (Austin Durant) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

That pairing begins at once, with the Proprietor (Austin Durant), a boardwalk carny, offering a ragtag bunch of possible customers the chance to shoot a president. As Durant, in a sexier version of an Uncle Sam outfit, takes Leon Czolgosz (P. J. Griffith) or John Hinckley (Lucas Dixon) under his wing, huge projected images of that assassin’s target appear. Soon, eight—all but Oswald—have gathered, as a kind of ad hoc assassins convention, where nobodies will become somebodies. Of course, the biggest somebody of them all is also the last of the eight to arrive. John Wilkes Booth (Robert Lenzi) was a minor somebody, as an actor, and his bid for glory, as portrayed in “The Ballad of Booth” with Dylan Frederick as the Balladeer, offers both an ironic commentary but also a surprisingly dignified account of his reasons from Booth. It helps greatly that Lenzi and Frederick are both well-cast in their roles, with Lenzi looking very much the part and singing with great authority.

Balladeer (Dylan Frederick) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Balladeer (Dylan Frederick) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Assassins keeps right on cooking, with lively moments—“How I Saved Roosevelt” (about the failed attempt by Giuseppe Zangara (Stanley Bahorek) to kill FDR)—and brooding moments, “The Gun Song,” a thoughtful ditty that takes off from the old “it takes a village” line to consider how much work goes into a gun and just how easy it is to move your little finger and change the world. For the most part, the would-be assassins are zanies and crazies, with some, like the two women who targeted President Ford, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Lauren Molina) and Sara Jane Moore (Julia Murney), played for laughs. Fromme’s duet with Reagan’s would-be assassin Hinckley, “Unworthy of Your Love,” is a plaintive cry for significance, showing Hinckley’s obsession with Jodie Foster and Fromme’s with Charles Manson. The irony of such an earnest big number in service to these two—and Molina and Dixon are both very good as and look very much like their respective characters—points up what makes Assassins work so well: there’s a daytime soaps element to the self-conceptions of these killers, as if the purpose of life is to be immortal in the media.

Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (Lauren Molina), John Hinckley (Lucas Dixon) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (Lauren Molina), John Hinckley (Lucas Dixon) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

That view is nowhere more apparent than in the show-stopping “The Ballad of Guiteau,” wherein Charles Guiteau (Stephen DeRosa), the assassin of President Garfield, gets to sell his particular brand. Guiteau is a jack of all delusions and DeRosa makes him an unforgettable presence, soft-shoeing up and down an impressive gallows, and inveighing lines from Guiteau’s odd paean to his own death, “I’m Going to the Lordy.” If you want to see a more striking, entertaining enactment of one of the true oddities of American history, you’re going to have to do some searching.

Indeed, the three successful assassins get their own ballads, and each is a high point. “The Ballad of Czolgosz,” like the one for Booth, gives Czolgosz the benefit of the doubt in suggesting the political nature of his despair—as an oppressed worker he sought out Emma Goldman (Liz Wisan) for inspiration and wanted to strike a blow for anarchy. Perhaps most plaintive—and unnerving of all—is Richard R. Henry’s inspired enactment of Samuel Byck, the man who—in the era of many a hijacked plane—decided he could get airplane pilots to crash a commercial flight into the White House to kill Richard Nixon. Byck, who was killed before the plane got off the ground, is seen here venting his “mad as hell” musings on cassette tapes addressing Leonard Bernstein and Nixon himself. Byck’s monologues let us hear an authentic voice of frustration coupled with a deranged view of how one man can make a difference.

front: Lee Harvey Oswald (Dylan Frederick), John Wilkes Booth (Robert Lenzi) and the cast of Assassins (photo: Carol Rosegg)

front: Lee Harvey Oswald (Dylan Frederick), John Wilkes Booth (Robert Lenzi) and the cast of Assassins (photo: Carol Rosegg)

The one disappointment in the show comes from the handling of Lee Harvey Oswald (Dylan Frederick), the assassin of Kennedy. He doesn’t get a ballad, unfortunately, but gets instead a dialogue with Booth that largely falls flat because of Weidman’s inability to convey either the pathos of Oswald or his delusions (both of which figure so well in the case of Byck). Instead we get from the Bystanders (Fred Inkley, Courtney Jamison, Jay Aubrey Jones, Brian Ray Norris, Sana “Prince” Sarr, Liz Wisan), “Something Just Broke,” which trades on the old “where were you when it happened” motif of the JFK assassination (complete with a huge projection of the Zapruder film). The latter image, more than the song, does much to set up the harrowing sense of the finale, “Everybody’s Got the Right”—“no one can be put in jail for their dreams”—that gives a voice to the assassin in us all that Adam Shatz has in mind.

r to l: Proprietor (Austin Durant), Byck (Richard R. Henry), Hinckley (Lucas Dixon), Moore (Julia Murney), Zangara (Stanley Bahorek), Guiteau (Stephen DeRosa), Fromme (Lauren Molina), Czolgosz (P. J. Griffith), Booth (Robert Lenzi) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

r to l: Proprietor (Austin Durant), Byck (Richard R. Henry), Hinckley (Lucas Dixon), Moore (Julia Murney), Zangara (Stanley Bahorek), Guiteau (Stephen DeRosa), Fromme (Lauren Molina), Czolgosz (P. J. Griffith), Booth (Robert Lenzi) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

The Yale Repertory Theatre revival of Assassins gives us a valuable musical with bite, a major entertainment about a very unentertaining aspect of American political life. Andrea Grody's orchestrations are tasteful and bright; the staging, but for somewhat pointless live camera feeds, is effective by being all to the service of the show, keeping our attention on the very good cast. Part cautionary tale, part ironic tribute to the little guy in history, Sondheim and Weidman’s show aims at the show-biz side of American history and kills it.

 

Assassins
Book by John Weidman
Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by James Bundy

Music Director: Andrea Grody; Associate Music Director: Daniel Schlosberg; Musical Staging: David Dorfman; Scenic Designer: Riccardo Hernandez; Costume Designer: Ilona Somogyi; Lighting Designer: Yi Zhao; Sound Designers: Charles Coes, Nathan A. Roberts; Projection Designer: Michael Commendatore; Production Dramaturgs: Matthew Conway, Lynda A. H. Paul; Technical Director: Steph Waaser; Dialect Coach: Ron Carlos; Fight Director: Rick Sordelet; Casting Director: Tara Rubin Casting, Laura Schutzel, CSA; Stage Manager: Paula R. Clarkson

Cast: Stanley Bahorek, Stephen DeRosa, Lucas Dixon, Austin Durant, Dylan Frederick, P. J. Griffith, Richard R. Henry, Stephen Humes, Fred Inkley, Courtney Jamison, Jay Aubrey Jones, Robert Lenzi, Lauren Molina, Julia Murney, Brian Ray Norris, Sana “Prince” Sarr, Liz Wisan

Yale Repertory Theatre
March 17-April 8, 2017

Indifferent Honest

In the playbill for Hamlet at the Yale Repertory, directed by James Bundy and starring Paul Giamatti, dramaturg Dana Tanner-Kennedy quotes the critic Jan Kott: “we can only appraise any Shakespearean production by asking how much there is of Shakespeare in it, and how much of us.” Good question.  And who is “us,” anyway?

One “us” involved here, of course, is the Yale School of Drama—both Bundy and Giamatti are grads and Bundy is its Dean as well as the Artistic Director of the Yale Rep.  A fair number of former students and current students grace this production, so, from that point of view, this Hamlet is “us” in spades.  In fact, it might be hard at times to see this production as not about that particular “us.”  From that point of view, it’s remarkably successful—the show is sold out*.  Kudos, all around.  And particularly to graduating student Meredith Ries for her stunning and fascinating set.

But we must also consider Shakespeare and the other “us”—not simply the audience (i.e. the local citizenry and others who have come here to see a name actor of stage and screen enact one of the premiere roles in all of theater), but also, one assumes, the contemporary world in general.

Hamlet, we might say (and Tanner-Kennedy makes that case in the playbill), is always “modern”—and it’s up to “us” (critics, I suppose) to decide if it’s modern in a way that makes sense for the tenor of the times.  That said, as a critic I tend to sympathize with Harold Bloom who insists that Shakespeare’s plays would work, even if you cut out all the stage business and simply have the actors speak the lines to the best of their abilities.  In fact, Bloom goes further and suggests many a production would be better that way.

The case for “how much Shakespeare,” then, has to do with whether the lines get across.  The lines alone make it about “us”—so, “speak the speech, I pray you, as I spoke it to you” and you cannot then be false to the text, and cannot fail to implicate “us.”  Now, if this come tardy off or something too much, as Hamlet might say, then we run into problems.

If you know the play, you know I’m cribbing in part from Hamlet’s advice to the players.  It’s good advice, and might be extended to other matters the Dane touches not on.  On that score, this is a Hamlet that hews, for the most part, to the “temperance” that “begets a clearness” the Prince himself might applaud.  In other words—and in Hamlet there are always more “words, words, words”—the play is easy to follow and, despite its length, not overlong.  Giamatti is often almost breathless with exertion—you might easily believe he is devoutly wishing for both “rest” and “silence”—and yet he ever finds new modulations in a voice gifted with considerable range.

In the advice scene, Bundy—and it was one of my favorite bits—makes Hamlet’s comments seem windy director’s notes on a performance that hasn’t happened yet.  The actors humor him and basically play him for a fool even as he advises them not to let the fools govern the piece.  His advice is about how much comedy to let into a tragedy, and how much passion.

Bundy’s production errs a little on both.  At times the actors—and Marc Kudisch’s King Claudius is the most remiss in this, though Giamatti would not ‘scape whipping on that score neither—tend to pump up the sobs and tears a bit too much.  Contrast that with Patrick Kerr’s First Player who does the “mobled queen” speech as  though it’s a bit of vaudeville.  Still better and worse, as Gertrude (Lisa Emery) might say.  For comic missteps, the Queen's bottle-swilling undercuts the pathos of her lyrical speech describing Ophelia’s death, though one could argue it suits the "Sopranos Go Elsinore" royal couple.

Other thoughts on support: the scenes between Kudisch’s stiff CEO-like Claudius and Tommy Schrider’s unconvincing Laertes make some of Part Two slow going.  It’s not just that we aren’t getting our Giamatti—what we are getting isn’t pointed enough to make us care.  Jarlath Conroy’s Gravedigger is all he should be and no more; Brooke Parks’ Ophelia is only interesting when she’s gone mad, aided by the great touch of having her robed in her dead father’s bloody button-down; Gerry Ramman’s Polonius uses a masterful sense of timing to give us the comedy embedded in a presumptuous counselor’s demands for dignity; and Austin Durant is perfectly measured as a scholarly and mannerly Horatio.

And what of Giamatti, and “us”?  When, early on, the Prince, wracked with sobs over his dead dad, assumes a fetal position, then starts up like a guilty thing when Horatio and the Watch come upon him, we get a real glimpse into this Hamlet.  An overgrown baby, an ineffective “manchild” of so many films of today, he berates his would-be lover Ophelia while swaddled in a bathrobe, boxers, and socks (the uniform of the clinically depressed).  When he has to lay into his mother on her bed, Giamatti is hunched and pained, often pressing his hands between his legs as though ashamed of himself.  The scenes between Hamlet and his father’s Ghost (Kudisch again, and very commanding in the role) are riveting, thanks in part to Lighting (the most excellent Stephen Strawbridge) and Sound (the wondrous Keri Klick). Giamatti plays the first on his knees and the second, in his mother’s bedroom, as though prostrate with emotion at the realization that he can’t be his dad’s avenger, much less his replacement.  When we see Hamlet don the Player King’s crown I couldn't help thinking of Charles Laughton as Quasimodo crowned as the King of Fools.  This Hamlet is a thing of “shreds and patches.”  A fit of hysteria hiding behind “knavery.”

And what of the knavery?  I’m of the opinion that Hamlet comes close to madness by trying to be too clever by half, talking himself into fits, we might say.  Giamatti’s Hamlet, when at his wit’s end, is likely to mime slitting his throat or to make nutty faces—something for the groundlings.  But Giamatti can also be cutting with voice alone and has the means to manifest the thoughtful Hamlet and the heart-eating one as well—his entrance and first scene make that clear.  What I’d like more of is Hamlet in a battle of wills against himself—and against “us,” the ever-present audience the Prince carries in his own mind.

Likeable, energetic, frustrated, Giamatti is best as the impatient, resourceful Hamlet who, brilliant and lazy, won't suffer fools gladly.  He might, we imagine, be happily playing computer games on the old man’s dime if some ambitious relative hadn’t poisoned the king in his garden.  And when this poor fool of a prince has strutted his three hours upon the stage, the military man Fortinbras (Paul Pryce) comes in to mop up.

I’d say this Hamlet’s got “us” right.  O cursèd spite!

*Note: though the production is sold out, there is a wait list that begins an hour before each performance: 6:30 for evening shows; 12:30 p.m. for matinees.

 

William Shakespeare’s Hamlet Directed by James Bundy Starring Paul Giamatti

Composer: Sarah Pickett; Scenic Designer: Meredith B. Ries; Costume Designer: Jayoung Yoon; Lighting Designer: Stephen Strawbridge; Sound Designer: Keri Klick; Fight Director: Rick Sordelet; Vocal Coach: Grace Zandarski; Movement Coach: Erica Fae; Production Dramaturg: Dana Tanner-Kennedy; Casting Director: Tara Rubin; Stage Manager: Geoff Boronda

Yale Repertory Theatre March 15-April 13, 2013