Monday, February 12, 2018

Theater Latte Da's Assassins is a Haunting Performance

Why should a nation as a whole have to pay the price for the madness of a few? 


Photo by Dan Norman

That was the question on my mind throughout the speedy 100 minute duration of Assassins, the latest to grace the stage at the Ritz Theater via Theater Latte Da. One of Stephen Sondheim's lesser produced musicals, Assassins tells the concurrent stories of successful and would-be assassins of former presidents of the United States, beginning with Abraham Lincoln and ending with Ronald Reagan. Assassins focuses less on the "what happened" of each attempt and more on the "why'd you do it?", giving each villain a chance to soliloquize about their feelings, the ways the world has done 'em wrong, and what they hope for the future. The common theme? Wishing deeply to feel truly seen and heard, especially from a place of disenfranchisement.

Photo by Dan Norman

As always, Latte Da has lined up a musically rock solid cast. Led by Tyler Michaels as Lee Harvey Oswald, the mostly male troupe swaggers their way through bravado arias about their prowess and disenchantment with the world. Michaels is of course terrific, bringing an easy, lighthearted manner to each song he narrates. Another standout is Dieter Bierbrauer as hauntingly sinister John Wilkes Booth. Bierbrauer clearly relishes his moment on the dark side, and he provides a convincing plant to convert would-be assassins to indulge their evil ambitions. Sara Ochs is terrific as Sara Jane Moore and provides almost all of the show's desperately needed comedic breaks. Shinah Brashears shines as the eerily deranged Charles Manson acolyte Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, and Evan Tyler Wilson has a lovely solo as John Hinckley towards the end of the show.

Photo by Dan Norman

The set (designed by Eli Sherlock) is an interesting mashup that reminded me of a blend between twee Americana and an alternate universe Moulin Rouge. Audience members loved the pre-show carnival, which allowed them to climb on stage to play games in the hour before the show and see the design up close. My favorite element included a creative use of colored vaudeville style stage lights. Presidential banners (which were ripped down as each president was shot) provided a nice visual of the evolution of political advertising, if a highly unsettling one (there are several more surprise "drops" throughout the show that will keep your shock levels engaged). Alice Fredrickson's costume design and Paul Bigot's wig and hair design do a surprisingly good job of mimicking the real-life assassins, firmly placing each character into their respective time period and enlivening the excellent program notes on each. Marcus Dilliard provides specific, spooky stage lighting that enhances each villain's moment in the (literal) spotlight and an occasional whiff of idiosyncratic whimsy. And Jason Hansen does a solid job of leading the pit, which sounds surprisingly lush with only four musicians performing.

Photo by Dan Norman

I'll be honest with you, dear reader: I'm having a hard time summating my experience at Assassins.

Here's why: as always, Latte Da's production design and musical execution is top notch. I was really excited to see something brand new to me and a little more brash and edgy than I'm used to on stage. Sondheim is always good for a dark adventure, and as I have recently been fascinated with American history and especially presidents, this fit quite well into my interest zone.

Photo by Dan Norman

However, I have been profoundly unsettled since watching the show. This is due to no error on the part of Theater Latte Da - as previously mentioned, the performances are strong. I think my soul is just not ready to handle such a deeply macabre narrative in the light of our current very real, very serious political conflicts in this country. We know that several attempts were made on President Obama's life while in office (although none as close a call as detailed in Assassins); it is not a stretch to imagine the same is now occurring with President Trump. Since this story is told exclusively from the perspective of the assassins themselves we are never able to hear the perspective of the victims families, fellow citizens, or the many cabinet members who are directly affected by a political assassination and have to clean up the aftermath.

Photo by Dan Norman

Because of this, the whole tone of Assassins is almost unbearably blithe - which is, I think, the point. Each of these people (who have been cast so directly - especially John Wilkes Booth - in American history as criminals of the worst kind) appear here as so ... banal. The bulk of them could be your mildly off-kilter neighbor, your eccentric cousin or your disgruntled ex-coworker. They have some unhinged ideas, sure, but the reasons they give for their assassinations are truly mediocre when weighed against the effects of their actions. It is stunning to peer into the mind of a madman and learn that you have more in common than you might ever think, and when punctuated by the blistering periodic gunshots (expertly timed by sound designer C. Andrew Mayer), it's a jolting effect that never loses its power.
Photo by Dan Norman

So I'm having a tough time determining how to tell you what I think of this show. While the performances are terrific - in the truest, most literal sense of that word - the show itself seems both more timely and more horrifying than ever. The end of the show, which closes with a looped live video recording of the death of President Kennedy - brains out and all - is a horrific reminder of the cost of letting our disillusionment and anger reach their full potential. We as a society feel so at a dangerous political precipice to me that the gruesome implications of Assassins feel like a grim omen.

Peter Rothstein's direction whips this narrative to truly ghoulish heights, and anyone who sees this will find themselves wrestling some cognitive dissonance. If you're a Sondheim die-hard fan, want to see a show that is rarely performed, enjoy bravado singing regardless of the lyrics, or are a devoted horror fan, you will probably be able to sit through this with less trepidation than I did, and I'd encourage you to do so. Maybe we should all be unsettled. Maybe we should take our imaginations to their darkest corners; after all, how else can we stop the next tragedy from happening? Assassins runs at Theater Latte Da through March 18; for more information or to buy tickets, click on this link. I'll leave you with the final words from Peter Rothstein's director notes, which are a great wrap to the story:

"Many people have asked me, why produce Assassins now, at this particular moment in history. In my lifetime I have never witnessed a discourse so volatile surrounding the role of the President of the United States. No matter where you stand politically, the anger, hatred and violence surrounding this presidency is unlike anything I've witnessed. [...] Assassins has been criticized for its glorification of its subjects, but I believe Sondheim and Weidman's goal was quite the opposite. I believe their goal was to shine a light on the humanity of these individuals and in so doing illuminate a path to understanding. Only through understanding, through empathy, can real change occur. And like a true Sondheim musical, that path is rarely an easy one."