Liz Wisan

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

Hey Claude

Much Ado About Nothing, the comedy by Shakespeare that is the source for These! Paper! Bullets!, a new adaptation—or, in its terms, “modish ripoff”—by playwright Rolin Jones and director Jackson Gray, is somewhat silly, somewhat foolish, somewhat witty, and way too busy. The original play suffers from a surfeit of plots that don’t really add up to much—which is a way of saying their only purpose is to divert—and TPB takes that feature and runs away with it.

What makes TPB bigger than our Will’s conception is the driving force of this lively, tuneful, and sprawling production: pop culture in the form of the Fab Four—The Beatles. TPB takes us back to the days when the boys from Liverpool—not to mention numerous copies, clones, and wannabes—first assailed these shores. 1964, the key year of Beatlemania, found the Beatles riding as high as they would ever ride. “Bigger than Jesus,” John Lennon quipped (to considerable backlash), as does his likeness here: Ben (the firmly tongue-in-cheek David Wilson Barnes), the wittiest of the Quartos, aka Benedict in Much Ado. He wrangles, rom-com fashion, with Bea, otherwise Beatrice (Jeanine Serralles), a fashion maven á la Mary Quant. Meanwhile his mate Claude (Bryan Fenkart, the “cute one”) is speechless with his fancy for Higgy, née Hero (Ariana Venturi), a model whose skill, it seems, is to make questionable couture look desirable.

What Jones and company do so cleverly is mash the familiar tropes of Beatlemania—Liverpool accents, matching suits, moptops, screaming girls, fab gear, media circus, hummable numbers—with the giddy courtship shenanigans of Much Ado. And guess what? The Beatles biz beats the Bard.

Fans of the Beatles—and the Rutles—will find moments that recall some of the best banter of the former and some of the parodic tweaking of the latter. The gag album titles, the pastiche for pastiche’s sake in the projections (Nicholas Hussong) and costumes (Jessica Ford) and tunes (Billie Joe Armstrong) and stagings, including a “Hey Jude” rave-up and a “Get Back” rooftop shutdown, will keep those in the know on their toes. Jones even manages to include the one line that appears in both a Shakespeare play and a Beatles tune (indeed, it’s cribbed from a BBC Shakespeare production in the Beatles song). A good extra credit question for classes attending the show—and no fair Googling it. Even the name of the band—the Quartos—manages to combine the Beatles’ original name—the Quarrymen—with a Shakespearean association.

Indeed, TPB improves on Much Ado, but not quite enough. The Don John subplot—never very compelling—becomes funnier with ribs at Don Best (Adam O’Byrne), the early Quartos drummer who was dumped and bears a grudge, and the best parts of Much Ado—the eavesdropping scenes—are not surprisingly the best parts of the play here. But Much Ado’s Dogberry, here Mr. Berry (Greg Stuhr), still manages to dispense his tedium, opening the play, opening the second act, and getting into an interminable physical bout with his second in command, Mr. Urges (Brad Heberlee), and with the malefactors, Boris the journalist (Andrew Musselman) and Colin, a paparazzo (Brian McManamon), who are generally tedious company in their own right. I doubt even Monty Python could make these clods as comical as they need to be to justify their time onstage. Their only purpose, as ever, is to give the principals a breather. Me, I’d rather be backstage with the band.

Along the way, adaptation-wise, there are some happy inspirations: Jones cheekily (heh) adapts the mistaken identity plot by way of doctored photographs occasioning, quite rightly, a tabloid frenzy about the most eligible Quarto, while “all the world”—in the form of breathless TV reporter Paulina Noble (Liz Wisan) and her cameraman (Brad Heberlee), and even the Queen (Chris Geary, a welcome royal)—looks on. The Quartos themselves are reminiscent of the ersatz Beatles of the Saturday morning cartoon, with Lucas Papaelias nailing perfectly the deadpan adroitness of the George avatar. Meanwhile, Frida (Ceci Fernandez) and Ulcie (Keira Naughton) provide much of the amusement on the ladies’ side. Then there’s Jabari Brisport in Dionne Warwick drag because he can. Unlike The Rutles, Jones doesn’t go near the homosexual undercurrents in The Beatles entourage, as Brian Epstein (and Leggy Mountbatten) has been excised, and a dutiful George Martin type, Anton (James Lloyd Reynolds), runs the show.

Others have commented on how Jones and Gay improve on the sexual politics of Much Ado, with the Foursome getting a comeuppance for their double standard (yawn), but, oddly, the girls don’t fare so well here. Higgy is pretty much incoherent as a character, with the winsomeness of Much Ado’s Hero dropped in favor of party girl dimness—an improvement?—and Serralles’s Bea I could not warm to at all, as something of the role’s soul disappears as Bea is more apt to stuff wedding cake in her gob than appeal to anything more winning. You may find yourself waiting for Yoko. Or maybe Jones should take a cue from that other band of the era and work in someone a bit more Faithfull to the scene.

There’s so much going on in the show, you may easily breeze through without thinking about anything so Old School as character development, and the songs certainly help. There are knock-offs like “I’ll Give It All to You,” and big, rousing numbers like “Regretfully Yours,” that uses Fenkart to good effect, and even Ben trying to lay down a “Hide Your Love Away”-style soul-search, and mustn’t forget Stephen DeRosa’s infectious sing-along to “My Wild Irish Rose” as “impromptu” mugging to mask some scenery shifting. It’s a moment warm with the music hall repertoire that was a ready source for the Lads, and it serves here to reach out to the audience—as do moments like Wisan spotting celebrities in the seats (on opening night Athol Fugard was identified as Winston Churchill and graciously smoked an imaginary cigar on camera).

Full of a little something for anyone with fondness for British humour, or for humoring the Brits, These! Paper! Bullets! mostly hits what it aims at, though somewhere in the whirligig is a romantic-comedy about sex and celebrity in the Sixties—with the Fabs as the feckless flag-bearers—trying to “shed those dowdy feathers and fly, a little bit.”

 

These! Paper! Bullets! A Modish Ripoff of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing Adapted by Rolin Jones Songs by Billie Joe Armstrong Directed by Jackson Gay

Choreographer: Monica Bill Barnes; Music Director: Julie McBride; Scenic Designer: Michael Yeargan; Costume Designer: Jessica Ford; Lighting Designer: Paul Whitaker; Sound Designer and Incidental Music: Broken Chord; Projection Designer: Nicholas Hussong; Orchestrator and Arranger: Tom Kitt; Dialect Coach: Stephen Gabis; Fight Director: Michael Rossmy; Production Dramaturgs: Ilya Khodosh, Catherine Sheehy; Casting Directors: Tara Rubin, Lindsay Levine; Stage Manager: Robert Chikar

Cast: David Wilson Barnes; Bryan Fenkart; James Barry; Lucas Papaelias; James Lloyd Reynolds; Adam O’Byrne; Jeanine Serralles; Ariana Venturi; Keira Naughton; Ceci Fernandez; Stephen DeRosa; Andrew Musselman; Brian McManamon; Jabari Brisport; Christopher Geary; Brad Heberlee; Liz Wisan; Greg Stuhr; Anthony Manna

Yale Repertory Theatre March 14-April 5, 2014