By John Lyle Belden
For about a year now, it has been the unofficial Year of Sondheim around central Indiana stages. And now it appears to be Buck Creek Players’ turn, with its production of the musical, “Assassins.”
This play brings together in a dark-humored fantasia various men and women who killed – or tried to kill – the President of the United States. The genius of this piece by Sondheim and James Weidman is that it compellingly presents these individuals’ point of view without glorifying their acts.
The Proprietor (Steven R. Linville) in this room outside of time and space is offering guns to the various frustrated characters seeking – something. Perhaps it’s personal relief; perhaps it’s attention; perhaps it’s to change the world. The solution? Shoot the President.
The characters represent people who actually existed (a couple are even still alive), who you may or may not have heard of, but they all look up to the one we all know: Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth (Mark Meyer). Charles Guiteau (David Wood) would be shocked that we don’t know his name as readily, as he expected his shooting of President James Garfield (briefly played by chorus member W. Michael Davidson) to boost sales of his book and lead to him becoming President himself – rather than be hanged, which happened instead.
We also hear of the irrational motivations behind Leon Czolgosz (Jake McDuffee) shooting William McKinley, Guiseppe Zangara (Scott Fleshood) shooting at Franklin Roosevelt, John Hinckley Jr. (Trenton Baker) shooting Ronald Reagan, and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Stacia Ann Hulen) and Sara Jane Moore (Cathy Tolzmann) taking shots at Gerald Ford (played, complete with pratfall, by Bryan D. Padgett).
Most intriguing are the ramblings of Samuel Byck (Daniel Draves), taken from the actual tape recordings he made and sent to journalists, before attempting his plan to crash a passenger jet into the White House to kill Richard Nixon (his gun was used on others as he tried to take over the plane).
To let us know these assassins’ stories, we hear from a Balladeer (Luke McConnell), who eventually finds his own dark and infamous purpose.
These are not heroes; most are arguably insane, but it’s hard to say they are entirely bad people. These facts add depth to performances throughout the cast. Guiteau’s delusions make Wood’s portrayal one of the more entertaining. Hulen as a loopy-hippie Fromme and Tolzmann’s Kathy-Bates-esque turn as Moore provide much of the dark humor, especially in Moore’s total incompetence with a firearm. Mary Hayes Tuttle boldly portrays famed anarchist Emma Goldman, an influence on Czolgosz, who McDuffie infuses with desperation. Fleshood plays Zangara earnestly, an appropriate approach for someone whose pain was real but actions made little sense. And Draves is like an obscenity-spewing force of nature as Byck – the dirty Santa suit he wears to protest Nixon making him look even more unhinged. Baker’s Hinckley is a lost, confused boy with a gun.
Above all, Meyer exudes a charisma befitting Booth, a renowned actor before committing the one act his is known for, as he takes charge of this macabre exclusive club. Linville and McConnell ably represent American Culture and History, respectively, as tangible beings with genuine influence on the stories we see, making it feel inevitable when McConnell’s young man picks up the rifle.
(Note: This production doesn’t hold back on language. But then, the topic already makes this not a show for children.)
With sharp direction by D. Scott Robinson with Christine Schaefer, and interesting set design by Aaron B. Bailey, this is worth taking a shot at seeing down at the Buck Creek Playhouse, 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74), through June 12. Just kindly leave your firearms outside.
No actual Presidents were harmed in the making of this musical. Find info at www.buckcreekplayers.com or call 317-862-2270.
(Also published at The Word)