Steve Tipton as The Proprietor
and Peter Joshua as Giuseppe Zangara
Like Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson’s opera The Mother of Us All, Stephen Sondheim’s music theater work Assassins with book by John Weidman is a landscape of characters drawn from real people across time who anachronistically interact with each other. Signature Theatre of Arlington, Virginia, a theater group specializing in Sondheim’s work, has mounted an outstanding, psychologically relevant-to-our-times production. Under the direction of Joe Calarco, Assassins, a two-hour show without intermission, is a shocking mirror of who we are as Americans. Assassins include such familiar names as John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, and John Hinckley.
Held together by a carnival barker-like character called The Proprietor, Assassins is not a linear story. Like narrating characters in The Mother of Us All, Four Saints In Three Acts (an opera also by Stein and Thomson), and Our Town (a play by Thornton Wilder), the Proprietor weaves in and out of the action helping to set the scene or explain the situation in progress. In a cast of veteran award-winning players, Steve Tipton as The Proprietor seems a lightweight when the role begs an in-your-face and darker persona. Tipton’s performance is not bad, it just does not stand out.
Stand out performers include Donna Migliaccio as Sara Jane Moore, Erin Driscoll as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, and Will Gartshore as John Wilkes Booth. Sara Jane Moore and “Squeaky” Fromme, also known as Charles Manson’s girlfriend, were involved with the failed assassination attempts against Gerald Ford. As Moore, Migliaccio portrays an out-to-lunch soccer-mom-type-turned-radical who gets fired by the FBI as an informant and then joins forces with the Manson group. Migliaccio’s timing is impeccable as she delivers numerous comic lines and actions that trump the dark subject matter of disaffected people attempting to kill American presidents. Saturday Night Live comes to mind as Migliaccio, in inept frustration, gives up trying to load her gun and throws the uncooperative bullets and finally her dead lap dog, which she accidentally killed, at the bumbling Ford.
Erin Driscoll as Fromme is a convincing Fleur-du-mal Hippy slave to Manson. Manson, however, is not a character in Assassins. His substitute, with whom Fromme interacts and shows her need to be loved, is John Hinckley played by Nevermore composer Matt Conner. Conner does a satisfying job portraying the young man so obsessed with movie star Jody Foster that he attempts to assassinate Ronald Reagan to get Foster’s attention.
The male player who distinguishes himself is Will Gartshore as John Wilkes Booth. Gartshore has penetrating contact with the audience. In a work where the fourth wall does not exist because the audience can hardly tell where their seats end and the actors seats begin, Gartshore, with his engaging singing and speaking voice, seems to be at all times standing next to everyone in the audience. Weidman and Sondheim are effective in making the viewer understand the anguish each assassin has suffered and Gartshore gives a visceral twist to John Wilkes Booth’s emotional state and his complaint that Abraham Lincoln has been responsible for the deaths of so many Americans, especially in the South. With a similar situation of loss resulting from the war in Iraq today, the Assassins creators in combination with Calarco’s direction provide a new look at people Americans have seen as devastatingly evil or criminally deranged.
Although Sondheim’s music for Assassins does not command the same engagement as the music in Sweeney Todd or A Little Night Music, the compositions are stimulating and weave in snippets of such familiar music as John Philip Sousa’s “The Washington Post March,” Christian hymns, gospel ballads, cakewalks, country hoedowns.