Angry men don’t write the rules and guns don’t right the wrongs. America’s got a problem…Sondheim has a solution. Never a more poignant and relevant time in our current political climate than right now has it been so appropriate to produce a production of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins. Pallas Theatre Collective is boldly daring to do so, and it draws striking attention to the world around us at present. Directed by Clare Shaffer with Musical Direction by Alex Thompson, this jarring and thought-provoking musical might be exactly what the nation needs to put the wheels of change spinning in motion.
Long before the results of the 2016 election, and certainly before anyone could fathom the atrocious tragedy of the recent Las Vegas Massacre, Pallas Theatre Collective had incorporated Assassins into their current 2017 season. Director Clare Shaffer has framed up the production around a twisted carnival, fully interweaving this atmospheric idea into the performance by making each of the performers musicians as well. One might say that Shaffer’s musical mobilization of the actors was instrumental in executing her idea. At times, it completely replicates the notion of the band on the grand stand at a state fair, though there are other moments where it seems oddly out of touch with the style of the musical. That said, all of the individuals who take up instruments— be it euphonium, xylophone, triangle, or the more traditional trumpet, and trombone— do an exceptional job of playing their way through the score.
Reinforcing the notion of the twisted carnival and warped wonderland are Properties Designer Pauline Lamb (who doubles as the show’s Choreographer) and Sound Designer Reid May. Lamb strings up various fairground-style prizes— complete with tickets— all across the back wall of the play space, to help cement the notion that each shot taken could be a simple carnival game on the midway. May’s auditory enhancements flow in the same vein with the congratulatory bell-dings when they “win their prize” if an assassin is successful. All of these support beams strengthen Shaffer’s concept, including the State-Fair-esque costume design by Joan Lawrence. The Proprietor’s Boat Hat, the gleaming whites of the ensemble, all of these little nuances help to complete the environment that Shaffer has envisioned for approaching Assassins.
The production’s slight downfall is the issue with sound balance. Without microphones, and having all of the live instruments front and center (with the Alex Thompson’s piano slightly off to the left) on the intimate black box stage, they readily and frequently overwhelm the soloists throughout the production. This is unfortunate as many of the performers have a great sound (when they can be heard) and are putting forth immense emotional connections into their numbers. How to resolve this problem is unclear as the blocking and use of instrumental-performers is already cemented in place, but it is disheartening as it is the show’s only real problem.
To assist with articulating emotions (perhaps to offset some of the sound balance issues) Lighting Designer E-hui Woo focuses on using the colored lights of a faire, and honing them into the emotional flavor of each moment. This is most noteworthy during “Unworthy of your Love” where the “Squeaky” Fromme character is lit in a toxic purplish pink, symbolizing how she’s punch drunk on the Kool-Aid love of Charlie, and John Hinckley is lit in a moody dysthymic teal, readily reflecting the blues and despair he feels while singing that number.
The ensemble is strong, creating a heady sound during group numbers like “The Ballad of Czolgosz.” But they run hog wild trying to each steal the spotlight and <imitation> microphone from one another during “How I Saved Roosevelt. Comprised of Mason Catharini, Andrew Flurer, Marc Pavan, Jenna Murphy, Christine Callsen, Camryn Shegogue, Gabriel Brumberg, the ensemble brings a rousing and supportive spirit to this and other group numbers. Pavan and Murphy are particularly notable for what they get up to in “How I Saved Roosevelt” and Pavan should be praised for his ridiculous caricature portrayal of Gerald Ford in the “Squeaky” and Sara Jane scene. Callsen should also be noted for her roaring performance as Emma Goldman. Though her accent isn’t terribly consistent, that staunch and stalwart fight for social justice is a palpable string that carries her readily through the scene.
With a strikingly consistent accent, Brendan McMahon tackles the character of Czolgosz with vigor. There is a brutal anger rolling forth when he growls into the bottle speech, readily exposing his urge to become an assassin. Accompanied by a robust and deep mellifluous baritone-bass range, McMahon delivers both “The Ballad of Czolgosz” and his portion of “Another National Anthem” in a way that sends frightening shivers up the spine. Subtle, but just as consistent, Giuseppe Zangara (Topher Williams) has an accent that outs him as an immigrant immediately. Williams, who has an astonishing vocal sound, particularly during the long hard sustains he belts out at the end of “How I Saved Roosevelt”, really hones in on the anguish and frustration that drives his character to be an assassin.
“Squeaky” Fromme (Alex Palting) and Sara Jane Moore (Karen Lange) are from two different planets but come together in an attempt to shoot President Gerald Ford (the only president actually featured as a walking, talking character in the production). They fail hysterically. Lange, who is responsible for a great deal of the show’s comedic relief, works his expressive facial features and her absurd sense of comic timing to really get some laughs out of the audience. While Palting affects a highly stylized laugh to her character that is so grating it’ll kill all the presidents from sheer irritation! The pair are well-matched to play opposite of one another, and hold their own as the only two female assassins among the bunch. Palting also pairs off against Taylor Rieland, playing John Hinckley. Rieland is twisted by his character’s obsession with Jodi Foster, but that pang of longing is real and heartfelt, especially during his duet “Unworthy of Your Love.”
Though he doesn’t have a solo song, Tyler Cramer’s portrayal of Samuel Byck is riveting. Providing a great deal of levity and black humor to the show, Cramer attacks the Byck monologues and drives home the character’s irate fury without needing to erupt at full vocal capacity. Ferocious and frightening, Cramer’s portrayal is the polar opposite of what Zach Brewster-Geisz does with the character of Charlies Guiteau. Slipped completely to the bottom of the sanity slope, his mincing, waltzing, almost flamboyant physicality is hilarious and Brewster-Geisz’ widely expressive eyes only enhance the antics that his character exudes. Bubbly and wild doing his “Going-to-the-lordy!” bit of “The Ballad of Guiteau”, Brewster-Geisz really grabs the audiences’ attention and floats away with the scene.
With dulcet tones and a vocal strength that is occasionally able to overcome the sound balancing issues, Will Hawkins plays the role of The Balladeer and handles it sublimely. There is a spirit, a gumption, and an effervescence that rides him through each of the ballads— “…of Booth”, “…of Czolgosz”, and “…of Guiteau.” Hawkins serves as the voice of hope and reason, but when the assassins stalk the stage in formation (thanks to Pauline Lamb’s chaotic choreography) during “Another National Anthem”, Hawkins’ character is obliterated and the voice of hope vanishes. (This is again reflected in the lost shambling that the ensemble performs during the disturbing “Something Just Broke.”)
Agitator extraordinaire, instead of Booth one could call him Spoon because he’s constantly stirring up the assassins. Andrew Keller is an exemplary John Wilkes Booth, both in his moment of “The Ballad of Booth”, where he is the shining epitome of that vile southern villain, desperately trying to be humanized, and throughout the performance as he arrives and places guns in hands and riles Lee Harvey Oswald (Andrew Flurer) to action. His presence is the guiding force, the driving beacon of darkness in this production, a duty usually laden upon the shoulders of the Proprietor character, who is oft treated like the master puppeteer.
Relevant, striking, and perfect for the time, Pallas Theatre Collective has a production that you’ll want to invest in.
Running Time: 1 hour and 50 minutes with no intermission
Assassins plays through October 15, 2017 with Pallas Theatre Collective in the Logan Fringe Arts Space: Trinidad Theatre— 1358 Florida Avenue NE in Washington, DC. Tickets can be purchased at the door or in advance online.