Is there a more relevant topic in contemporary America, while gun control is being hotly debated by the presidential candidates, Congress, and the voting populace, than a look at gun violence via the murderers and would-be killers of US presidents? Based on an original concept by Charles Gilbert, Jr., Assassins, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by John Weidman, presents an atemporal fictionalized history that is both timely and chilling, and the Eagle Theatre’s excellent production of the Tony and Drama Desk Award-winning musical is a provocative example of art that can make a difference, by employing theater in the service of social issues.
Presented in the format of a Vaudevillian-style carnival revue, the one-act show begins with the diabolical Proprietor of a fairground shooting gallery (an unnerving and seductive Tim Rinehart in demonic make-up) hawking guns to the soon-to-be-infamous passersby and enticing them to take aim at a President. The unsettling vignettes that follow are seen from the perspective of the titular figures from the 19th and 20th centuries, who co-exist here in a hellish time and space, conversing, singing out their motivations for murder with the aid of a Balladeer, and encouraging each other to join their notorious circle of assassins.
Varied styles of dress evoke the historical period of each real-life character (costumes by Sean Quinn), as does Sondheim’s complex score, which gives a nod to the popular music of each era represented. The musical numbers, all potently performed by Eagle’s skilled ensemble and live band, and musically directed by Jason Neri, include a sardonic paeon to the 2nd Amendment (“Everybody’s Got the Right”), delivering the sociopathic message that shooting the people in charge will bring happiness to the lives of the chronically disenfranchised and peace to the minds of the criminally deranged–the “expatriates in our own country.” The cheery tone and tempo of the Balladeer (played with youthful optimism by Adam Hoyak) and the vertical strips of bright carnival lights that flash in time to the music (lighting design by Chris Miller) provide a bizarre contrast to the assassins’ unhinged justifications for killing, which give deeply disturbing insights into the logic of madness and the desperate backstories that inspired their vicious acts.
Directed by Ted Wioncek III and led by Philadelphia favorite Jeffrey Coon as John Wilkes Booth (the killer of Abraham Lincoln), the consistently fine cast ably distinguishes the personalities, psychology, and emotions, accents and speech patterns of the nine men and women who achieved fame and sought fulfillment by taking the life of an American President. From Justin Mazella as Leon Czolgosz (the son of Eastern-European immigrants who murdered William McKinley) to Sean Elias as Giuseppe Zangara (the Italian-born attempted assassin of President-Elect Franklin D. Roosevelt) to Will Connell as John Hinckley (who believed he could win the love of Jodie Foster by shooting Ronald Reagan), the actors reveal the anger, frustration, and alienation that drove the crazed gunmen to strike out.
The deafening sounds of the gunshots fired by the characters, and often aimed towards the audience, contribute to the terrifying mood of the story (sound design by David Pierron). But most disquieting is the scene of Lee Harvey Oswald (Adam Hoyak, transformed from the upbeat Balladeer by the overwhelming evil around him), which includes the appalling actual footage of the Kennedy assassination on the multilevel wooden set’s backdrop of video screens, with scenic design by Wioncek and Miller, who also designed the projections, followed by members of the ensemble coming together to sing about his unforgettable impact on America in “Something Just Broke.”
Despite the dead-serious topic, there is also enough dark humor in the play to elicit uncomfortable, but much needed, laughter. Paul Weagraff is hilarious as the oddly congenial jack-of-all-trades Charles Guiteau (who was hanged for the assassination of James Garfield), as are Samantha Morrone and Victoria Healy, in an imagined meeting between Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (an adoring follower of Charles Manson) and Sara Jane Moore (each made a failed attempt on the life of Gerald Ford, whose renowned clumsiness is captured in a well-executed bit of physical comedy by Shaun Yates). And David C. Yashin, absurdly dressed in a Santa suit, makes the transition from laughable to scary as Samuel Byck (attempted assassin of Richard Nixon), in a standout monologue that becomes increasingly impassioned as his murderous rage builds.
It is that incendiary character, who, in an earlier scene with his fellow assassins, effectively underscores the current import of the play with the protest sign he carries: “ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS IS MY CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHT.” Isn’t that the same rationale of today’s gun lobby in America?
Running Time: Approximately two hours, without an intermission.