Sunday, January 20, 2013

Review: (Winnipeg) Assassins

Kevin Dennis (photo credit: Bruce Monk)
The American Psyche Sung
by Edgar Governo

In theory, the American Dream is one of limitless possibility—no matter what your background is, you can achieve any goal you desire (even becoming President of the United States) as long as you're willing to put in the effort. In practice, however, there are many factors that get in the way or preclude that, along with the simple reality that not everyone is going to achieve the same level of success regardless of the conditions set out beforehand...and only 44 people have ever achieved the highest office in the land.

Assassins, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a libretto by John Weidman, confronts this tension in American society by expanding on the ultimate assertion of power from the otherwise powerless in that society: the assassination of its most powerful figure. Many people seem to think this is a shocking work to include in Winnipeg's SondheimFest, but it is more relevant than ever in light of a political climate that continues to reflect that inherent contradiction. As I write this, President Obama is being inaugurated for a second term while gun advocates are protesting any restrictions on gun ownership in state capitals across the US, and I could never come up with a better analogy in the headlines for these same issues at odds with each other.

So much of Assassins is about how an everyday American can change the world with a gun

It can be a strange experience to watch a play so concerned with issues particular to American culture, which seem to be coming up a lot in this Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre season in general. As with any Canadian exposure to an American cultural product, one simultaneously experiences identification with its universal themes, recognition of the themes growing out of US history, and alienation from those themes because of the differences in Canadian culture. So much of Assassins is about how an everyday American can change the world with a gun ("just squeeze your little finger," as one song lyric proclaims), but there is no direct equivalent to the Second Amendment or its attendant gun culture in this country.

On the other hand, that desire to make a difference, along with the fear that your life will never amount to much through no fault of your own, is something anyone in any country can relate to. When someone engages in a prominent act of murder—from Polytechnique to Newtown and beyond—it is often the last act in a desperate attempt to leave one's mark, and a historic act of murder leaves such a mark that (as the play points out) it gets its own word, "assassination." In response to powerlessness, one asserts the power of life and death, the power to rewrite history through violence.

All nine of the real-life figures featured in the play are frustrated in their previous attempts at success and acclaim, regardless of their stated motives for assassinating the President of their day (or at least trying to). Each one can claim a loftier reason, such as John Wilkes Booth (Shane Carty) asserting that he is avenging the South's loss in the American Civil War by killing Abraham Lincoln, but the figure of The Balladeer (Geoffrey Tyler) is always ready to deflate those claims and bring them back to the individual.

For all the talk of hard work in the American Dream, so much of individual opportunity comes down to random chance, and this is just as true in the somewhat unique career field of presidential assassination. Only four of the nine attempts brought to life in the play actually succeeded, for a variety of reasons that have very little to do with the person trying, and Sondheim himself (despite his own privileged background) also owes much to chance—he has a successful musical theatre career now largely because he had the good fortune to move in next door to Oscar Hammerstein as a child. He seems to acknowledge this in a very self-aware moment when would-be Nixon assassin Sam Byck (Graham Abbey) bitterly quotes from Sondheim's lyrics to "America" from West Side Story.

Much like their characters, the actors in Assassins achieve varying degrees of success. Standouts include Steve Ross, who brings an amusing bombast to Charles Guiteau, the killer of President James Garfield; the aforementioned Abbey, who convincingly portrays Byck's political obsession with prominent figures; and the unlikely comedy team of Squeaky Fromme (Janet Porter) and Sara Jane Moore (Melody A. Johnson), whose bumbling attempts to murder President Gerald Ford come across like a recurring Laugh-In sketch.

The mostly older crowd at the performance I attended seemed uncomfortable with laughing at the many comedic moments in this musical, given the subject matter. (One woman behind me was still aghast at the end of the show that Sondheim would even tackle such a topic: "What was he thinking?") This is easy enough to understand because it's uncomfortable to admit that these characters are right—we're only aware of them at all, and watching a play about their lives, because they committed (or tried to commit) a heinous act. When the other assassins appear to Lee Harvey Oswald and give him the option of ending up like Marcus Brutus in Julius Caesar or Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, it's quite possible to see the reasons why Oswald would choose the former, but many people are naturally going to resist any temptation to feel amusement or sympathy for such a figure.

Everybody is scared and everybody wants to be heard, and musical numbers are all about revealing the internal emotions and motivations of those who are singing. Ironically, the nine people depicted in Assassins might not have killed at all if they'd been able to live in a musical and could just explain what's on their mind to a welcoming audience, but Sondheim and Weidman should be commended for turning their focus to a potentially disturbing corner of the American psyche where attention must be paid.

Assassins runs to February 2.

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