Psychologists like to play word-association games all the time. What would come to mind if a large, blank card revealed the words, “Abraham Lincoln”? How about “JFK”? Odds are that, within the first three guesses taken, the names John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald would surface. Exactly why these men — and others like them — are as memorable as the men they killed is the question that the Tony-award winning musical “Assassins” seeks to answer.
The play is staged through a series of vignettes following eight presidential assassins; the stage is always dimly lit and sparsely furnished; the guns flourished by each assassin throughout the entirety of the show function doubly as menacing weapons and sources of comedic relief.
A botched attempt at killing Gerald Ford (Edward Delman ’12) ends with Sarah Jane Moore (Laurel Durning-Hammond ‘14) throwing bullets at his receding back. A background is provided for each character in order to flesh them out beyond the infamy of their name as it is usually presented in the papers: President So-and-So assassinated by Nobody So-and-So becomes President Garfield assassinated by Charles Guiteau (Kaylan Ray-Mazumder ‘12).
As “Assassins” progresses it becomes increasingly evident that each of the characters is more than the product of a momentary lapse in sanity or an inability to cope with a single random event. Charles Gillespie DIV ’12 as the manic Samuel Byck – portrayed as a hobo Santa Claus in ratty sneakers for the majority of the show – is only preaching the long-winded, self-righteous indignities of political pundits everywhere.
“You really fucked up, Dick,” Byck informs an absent Nixon, a statement that was on the tip of everyone’s tongue by the time he failed to crash a plane into the White House. John Wilkes Booth (Noah Bokat-Lindell ’12) is convinced he is acting as a martyr for his country. In “The Ballad of Booth” he exclaims that “what [he] did was kill the man who killed [his] country!”
“Assassins” doesn’t try to provide excuses for its characters. Instead, it seeks to prove that they are the culmination of a society whose biggest fear is anonymity after death. And, as Booth reminds Lee Harvey Oswald (Mitchel Kawash ’12), Brutus is just as well-known as Caesar.
“Assassins” presents fame and infamy as the two roads that inevitably lead to history-book immortality. But only the story of those who chose the latter path is showcased in the play.
Don’t be surprised if the orchestra overpowers the actors’ singing. The appeal within the performance is in large part due to its incredibly talented cast. Durning-Hammond and Mark Trapani ’14 (as Giuseppe Zangara) held their own against an upperclassmen-heavy show with authentic portrayals of their respective dramatis personae.In a particularly formidable display, Trapani’s Italian accent refuses to slip, even in the midst of an emotionally heavy scene where he finds himself strapped to the electric chair. Surprisingly, the extras add a depth that becomes absolutely necessary throughout various scenes — they are the crowd that watched Zangara fail to kill FDR, McKinley’s excited supporters and the confused populace preaching collective shock in the show’s penultimate song. Woah.
The importance of such rock-solid acting in the face of a rather unremarkable script becomes apparent as Lee Harvey Oswald, surrounded by previous assassins, cradles a wrapped rifle. His story is one filled with a bitter betrayal that somehow, inexplicably, the audience is able to relate to. In the face of such overhwhelming emotion, Gillespie asks, glaring at the aluminum tin on the bench next to him, “What do we do?”
He pauses, head tilted curiously to the side, panting with the effort of his nearly-finished rant. Suddenly, his eyes brighten. With cackling, infectious glee, he answers his own question — and the one posed by every one of his fellow assassins.
“We kill the president,” he says.
Right on point.