This previous weekend, I had the utter pleasure of joining Jill of Cherry and Spoon and Carol and Julie from Minnesota Theater Love for a little theater road trip to Duluth. Along with lots of delicious food, local brews, and local tunes, we attended Renegade Theater’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins in the lovely Zeitgeist Arts Space.
Full disclosure – I have wanted to see Assassins for years. It’s come up in a number of ways and might be the one thing that links all the different hats I wear in the theater world. It’s a dramaturg’s dream and incredibly inspiring as a playwright and I was elated to see it being done in Minnesota (with the added benefit of it being in Duluth. Because who doesn’t love an excuse to spend a weekend in Duluth?).
I was not disappointed. This dark, fierce, and wildly funny show traverses a strange territory – a carnival outside of time where eight successful and would-be presidential assassins meet in a shooting gallery to share their stories – often through the eyes of a character known only as the Balladeer – and questions what it means to win and lose, succeed and fail, and strive for the American Dream in a world of myths. At the heart of this is a dark, frightening root that doesn’t waver from the violence and cruelty of the assassins’ acts. But with Sondheim and book writer John Weidman’s skill, this musical unfolds to be a very different beast than one that just focuses on how the killing occurred or trying to understand why the killing happened, ala a few History Channel documentaries I’ve tried to sit through (you know the one. Where they try and tell you John Wilkes Booth didn’t really die and he spent the rest of his life on a plantation in the South. Tell me one of you knows what I’m talking about). This doesn’t try to understand or empathize. It doesn’t try to forgive or explain away their actions. At the end of the show, they are still killers. But they are killers that look an awful lot like us.
Renegade did marvelous work with a very difficult show. There’s a lot of moving parts and only 90 minutes to reveal them all in. Andy Bennett is wonderfully compelling and persuasive as John Wiles Booth, Joe Cramer is a beautifully moving Czolgosz (especially in a moment in which Czolgosz describes his work making bottles in a factory), Nathan Payne is equally funny and frightening in his portrayal of Charles Guiteau, and Emily Bengston and Mary Foxy share a wonderful show-stealing scene with their interactions as Squeaky Fromme and Sara Jane Moore (respectively). Jack Starr (Proprietor), Abe Curran (Balladeer), Alec Schroeder (Giuseppe Zangara), Matais Valero (John Hinckley), and Matt Smith (Sam Byck) are also great, leading us on the uncomfortable, down the rabbit hole-like path where things no longer look as clear and certain as they did at the start. Ensemble members Ole Dack, Kendra Carlson, Tonya Porter, and Kyle McMillan are also fantastic. With a strong band that dives into the unusual harmonies and shifting tempos led by Patrick Colvin, this performance did a marvelous job capturing the nuances and complexities in this script (however, I have to admit, I was not a fan of the intermission. I love the drive through to a climatic end and the 10 minute break threw me off).
Unless you’re a fanatic like me (or really, really well-versed in your presidential history), there’s a lot of assassins you won’t have heard of before in this performance. Most of us only know Booth and Oswald and, until I took a class in college that introduced me to this show and Sam Byck, I only knew those two as well. One reason I love this musical is because it presents to us history we all think we know – and shows us how much more there is to it, not just what we think we know, but what we don’t know and what cannot be known. And if you’re looking to learn more about the assassins (as I was after I first heard about the show) then there’s some really great books out there to help you out such as American Assassins by James W. Clarke, Destiny of the Republic by Candace Millard (on the assassination of Garfield), and The President and the Assassin by Scott Miller (on the assassination of McKinley). (These are just a few I’ve read. I’m continually looking for more, especially since I’d love to dramaturg this show. Hell, I’d love to direct it too.)
As a playwright, I’ve been thinking about what makes theater different and what can be done onstage that can’t be done in a book or a poem. Setting the story in a shooting gallery is something that works best visually and audibly, with the flashing lights, the targets with images of presidents on them, and sounds of gunshots. Theater can play with time and space and allow this upside-down place where assassins come together from all different times and make an argument for their perspective. This show takes on an added weight in the midst of a discussion on gun violence (especially in “The Gun Song”) and argue that guns don’t right wrongs – but there’s still a belief that that can and will.
I’m so happy to have seen Renegade’s work and I look forward to seeing their performances in the future (I see from their webpage that I missed Murder Ballad and [title of show] which kind of breaks my heart). I’m excited to see what their next season might bring – and possibly another theater road trip.
Assassins is written by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman and directed by Katy Kelbacka. It is playing now through September 17th at Duluth’s Teatro Zuccone in the Zeitgeist Arts Space. Ticket and show information can be found at Renegade Theater’s website.