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Shoot to Thrill

Spotlighters Successfully Tackles the Big Cast and Themes Of Sondheim's Assassins

TOUGH LOVE: Liz Boyer Hunnicutt (as Sarah Jane Moore) urges Matthew Demetrides to clean his plate

By John Barry | Posted 3/7/2007

The most emotionally charged moment in Stephen Sondheim's Assassins is the one that he and the Spotlighters Theatre leave untouched: a wide-screen slo-mo of the Zapruder film. After we've traveled through history with a series of presidential assassins, listening to their stories and feeling their pain, the spectacle of JFK's head getting blown off resonates a little differently. The conspiracy theories all go out the window. John F. Kennedy, in this clip, becomes the victim of good old-fashioned road rage. The dark comedy gets a little darker. This musical is really about the way Americans build themselves up while tearing themselves down.

For those purposes, the Spotlighters' compact theater-in-the-round is oddly appropriate. Granted, the musical element is stripped down to its bare essentials. There's not much complex choreography or blocking beyond the essential task of getting 26 characters on and off stage. What makes this Spotlighters production effective and thought-provoking is that, in this stripped-down venue, we're practically in the same living room with a conga line of presidential assassins. And, oddly, we connect with each one of them.

The plot line, such as it is, is a nonchronological History 101 of presidential assassinations, successful and attempted. The musical begins with the godfather of presidential assassins, John Wilkes Booth, but gives equal time to a few assassinations that have faded in the national memory: William McKinley's 1901 killing by anarchist Leon Czolgocz at the Pan-American Exhibition and James Garfield's 1881 death at the hand of Charles Guiteau, a disappointed office seeker. Then there are the failed assassinations: the 1933 attempt on President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt's life, Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme's bungled 1975 misfire on Gerald Ford, and Samuel Byck's 1974 attempt to hijack a plane and smash it into the Nixon White House. John Hinckley takes his 1981 potshot at Ronald Reagan, who forgets to duck. And to cap it off--after the audience wonders why it's been left out--Assassins ends with the 1963 assassination of Kennedy.

In an admirable feat of casting (given obviously limited resources), the Spotlighters company manages to re-create each assassin, infamous and unfamous, as a memorable character. Booth (Edward Peters) is an obvious starting point as the Mephistopheles who whispers in the other characters' ears: Kill a president, be famous forever. In a riveting performance, Peters gives Booth the charismatic, histrionic intensity he needs to persuade lesser men to take the plunge.

The string of actors following offers a rainbow of distinct characters and motivations. As Guiteau, Stuart Goldstone stands out as a deluded optimist who, since he can't become ambassador to France, makes his mark by killing Garfield in his first year in office. Goldstone's performance skirts the edge of insanity but remains believable. There's an infectious logic to his character's assertion that killing the president is the ultimate in upward mobility.

As Giuseppe Zangara, the Italian who tried to kill FDR, Chris Homberg radiates the wounded, sullen anger of someone who doesn't care whether his bullet hits the mark or not. Everything about the U.S. is fraudulent, and the fact that the assassination misfired confirms that. Fromme (Tammy Crisp), meanwhile, is a somewhat ditzy broad who is doing it all for Charles Manson. Thom Sinn gives Byck a sympathetic performance as an average working-class guy who goes after Richard Nixon as an expression of frustration at the complexities of modern life. In one of the show's best performances, Shane Logue plays a vulnerable, battered Lee Harvey Oswald, the enigmatic loner who finally decides to seize the day.

Thanks to a strong ensemble performance, all the anti-heroes step up to the plate. What's really striking is that many of Assassins' characters are icons, without political affiliations, who are doing what all Americans are supposed to do: make a name for themselves. This production gives them all names and faces. If it doesn't advocate following suit, in a cheerfully and darkly humored way, it offers a chance to slip into their shoes for a moment. By offering the view from inside the Texas School Book Depository window, Sondheim reminds us that in a country where people are expected to define themselves as winners the losers grow increasingly interesting.

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