Assassins: Sunday in the Park with Booth

As the swirling cast tore off pieces of the balladeer's clothes and transformed him, I thought Jamie Lloyd's production of Assassins had its claws in me.  It was most unexpected since when I saw a concert production of the show in 2012, I found the material a little boring and tedious.  I know, how are assassins boring? Well they started to all feel a little repetitive. But there's no question that Jamie Lloyd's minimalist but smart production seems to highlight the conceptual connections between songs and book and everything feels relevant and necessary.   From the sad clown, tattooed, carnival barker Proprietor to the assassins whose suffering feels very real and only an arm's length away from the audience I was hooked.

I suddenly realized as the musical came to an end and the characters shout "Connect," that Assassins is Sunday in the Park with George with more death and less dots.  Alienated men and women who are desperate to connect, and they pick up a gun, not a paint brush.  It's Six Assassins in Search of a Spiritual Peg.  It's weird and wrong and absolutely right.  I don't think I will see a better production. 

The Menier is a notoriously small and shallow space to stage musicals.  Lloyd uses a traverse style staging which increases the intimacy.  You enter the "fun house" through the mouth of a clown.  Pieces of a broken down circus are all around--a bumper car unmoored from its ride, a Ferris wheel car, a giant clown head.  Bare lightbulbs hang across the ceiling and the words HIT or MISS are lit up in bulbs.  Most of the cast is pre-set and whether they are assassin or onlookers with their popcorn they are almost all onstage all of the time.  Nothing happens without an audience.

Lloyd envelopes the audience with this story.  Characters move up the aisles in the audience, hang about at the fringes of the room, and stare directly at the audience.  In a small room when a gun is pointed at you, or many guns, it is terrifying. 

The voice of the show seems to shift from The Proprietor to John Wilkes Booth to The Balladeer.  But rather than that feeling random or unwarranted, here it felt more like an intentional baton pass of power and authority.

Simon Lipkin is monumental as the Proprietor.  With his tattooed arms, Dark Knight Joker make-up, and a patina of malevolence, it's hard to take your eyes off him.  His brute force and rumbling presence is unavoidable.  Sometimes the Proprietor is a stand-in for the Presidents and at other times he is the dark force encouraging the assassinations. Sometimes he is even, at his most terrifying, the jolt of electricity from the electric chair.

He is contrasted with Aaron Tveit's John Wilkes Booth who starts us off with the first American presidential assassination and becomes the guiding force over all that follows him.  Tveit is the stage opposite of Lipkin, with his his slight frame and boyish good looks.  His Booth is not so much imperious (as Michael Cerveris was) but he is a vain, handsome actor who needs only open his mouth with his honeyed words to have an audience gather, beguiling everyone as he speaks.  His wry smile and sexy confidence makes assassination look easy.  Between Lipkin and Tveit, they end up the ying and yang of temptation and validation.  Strong arming or inveigling, either way they will convince would-be assassins to pull the trigger.

The Balladeer starts off strumming a banjo and with joviality engaging in folk songs about these assassins.  He is the one giving their internal struggles a voice.  But when he is "revealed" as Oswald suddenly it all makes sense.  Lloyd stages the transformation as if these voices of assassins past and future seem to come from his mind or come upon him like a plague.  All this time he has just been another voice in Oswald's troubled mind.  Jamie Parker manages this evolution from lighthearted song-smith to beleaguered Oswald admirably.  His big bicep, broad-chested Oswald is a solid, blue-collar guy besieged by ideas, sadness, frustration, anger, impotence, and despair.  He is at the end of his rope. Parker brings great sympathy to Oswald which leads to ever more troubling issues for the audience.

The work is constantly testing the audience.  To cheer for any of these hapless (and sometimes nearly loveable) characters is to drift into a moral gray area as we know they are all assassins.  Lloyd teases out such strong performances that you must struggle with these feelings constantly because as performed some of these people seem quite reasonable, quite within reach.  They are humans pushed one step too far.  And we are there to witness that step. 

Dramaturgically everything is built around Lee Harvey Oswald.  And as if this entire world--past and future, dreamed and real, has sprung from his mind he cracks open the horror for the audience in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination.  When he has succeeded, Lloyd stages a scene of unexpected, over-the-top rapture on stage, but then after it is over, during Something Just Broke, the entire color palette changes--all the bright warm light drifts into blue.  The tone shifts.  And for a show where the audience is in a moral quandary most of the time, he makes a distinct choice about how we are to feel from that point on. It's sickening and agonizing.  Any warmth that you may have felt for the assassins is reframed and you remember the destruction and loss they caused. When the focus shifts from the grieving nation back to the assassins, they suddenly feel more frightening, menacing, and remote. Many have argued against this song, added into the show in later productions, but I thought the way Lloyd staged it, he made it work.

This entire cast was incredibly strong--and what a rare thing that is.  There was not a single weak link amongst them.  Their singing was perfectly fine but they really elevated the material with their nuanced and engaging performances.  Despite big moments of high drama, this production is successful because it works on both a big and small scale.  The tender scene between Emma Goldman (Melle Stewart) and Czolgosz (David Roberts) is beautiful and touching.  Casting a young woman as Goldman makes their exchange even more poignant.  Her wistfulness at not having time for romance felt slightly sadder than I had seen before and their kiss seemed like a real kiss.  Goldman and Czolgosz appear as if they almost could connect if the timing were right.  But she was off to save the world and he was off to kill a President.  David Roberts brought an approachability and relate-able loneliness to Czolgosz.  He's not always an assassin I remember but Roberts made him unforgettable here. I even found his glass bottle scene to be riveting. 

Andy Nyman's Guiteau is a jolly, sad pleasure. As a show about mentally ill characters I thought Nyman in particular handled his character's struggles well.  You see things plaguing him and him responding by gently clawing at his scalp as he tries to soothe it away, all the while beaming.  Between his exuberance and his breakdown, the sparkle in his eyes is complex.  As it should be.  His character brings such a release to the audience but with that humor comes the darkness of his illness.   He kind of erases the field for all other Guiteaus.  He's magical. 

Lloyd has John Hinkley (Harry Morrison) and Squeaky Fromme (Carly Bawden) sing to their beloveds through photos held by the Proprietor.  As a song I've always had a warm spot in my heart for Unworthy of Your Love even though the more I listen to it the more it sounds like Sondheim doing Schwartz (and considering my feelings about Stephen Schwartz and I need to think about my life, Pippin).  Here, it came across appropriately creepy.  But I'll probably never get over Alexander Gemignani's heartbreaking rendition of it.  

Catherine Tate did a fine job with Sarah Jane Moore.  Mike McShane was a downtrodden and agonized Byck.  Stewart Clarke was an unexpectedly handsome and magnetic Zangara (The awkward moment you think, this Zangara could get it).

And I have to mention the incredible sound design by Gregory Clarke.  One moment of sound, with more contemporary implications evident, made me shiver.   I'm glad to have seen it at the Menier (it's now entirely sold out).  It's a terrific production but it works wonders in this space in the way Lloyd has envisioned it.  If it has a life beyond in a proscenium house, I worry the core of its electric intensity will be lost.  But trapped in that room, with a feeling of no escape, it had me shaking from the intensity of what I had witnessed.  And after a week of theater that kind of left me cold this was a hot-blooded production which did not let me stay on the sidelines.