How could one little man cause such universal grief and anguish? More importantly, why would he?” These stimulating questions blossomed into the 1990 musical “Assassins,” a spectacle that lures its audience into a world suspended in time and space, alternating between fiction and history to create a “dreamlike vaudeville” in which nine assassins of U.S. presidents from different points in history unite, collaborate and live through their experiences killing (or attempting to kill) the commander in chief. The Shotgun Players’ production of this Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman collaboration succeeded in building a hauntingly inviting carnival of misfits, beautifully displaying a vast range of quirks, ticks, yearnings and thirsts that trigger the same immortalizing exploit.
Upon entering the theater, it is impossible not to feel a sudden chill down the spine. The tone of the musical is immediately set by the enchantingly alluring yet frighteningly unsettling stage piece that towers over the audience. This sort of shape-shifting gazebo that functions as a carnival game booth magnificently dominates the theater in its oppressive size, dreary hue and wistful antiquity. Despite its overpowering grandiloquence, this enormous stage piece functioned pragmatically throughout the production. Rather than overwhelming the cast of characters, it served as a cleverly placed stage upon the stage on which characters make a spectacle of themselves for the other characters, performing their murders as if they were vaudeville acts supported by their peers throughout history.
In this and other ways, the stage direction of this performance was both fluid and effective. Almost every performer was present for most of the production on a relatively small stage (about 60 percent of which was dominated by the set and live orchestra) without seeming crowded or misplaced. Using the players to frame the central action and join the audience in the aisles among the seats not only incorporated the entire space to its best capacity but also contributed to the intrigue and spectacle created by the murders.
The small cast of 10 players (a characteristic quality of Sondheim’s work) smoothly executed the particularly taxing venture of blending in and out of ensemble and soloist positions throughout the production. Rebecca Castelli’s powerhouse voice, Jeff Garrett’s joltingly whimsical presence and Kevin Singer’s remarkable talent on the banjo displayed a spectrum of individual strength and variety that was highlighted both by independent performances and through the support of the ensemble. This strategic display of varied specialized personal talents maintained the atmosphere of a twisted vaudeville expression of American history, making for a clean transition back and forth between fiction and reality.
While the aforementioned features of the show succeeded in creating a memorable performance, the only element that seemed to be lacking was the immaculate attention to detail that must be paid to every moment in a Sondheim show. The incredibly precise diction demanded by a musical with such intentionally specific lyricism was not present in every singing performance, and closer attention to this detail could have created a more varied rise and fall in genre. Rather than feeling dark throughout the play, the comedic moments may have felt more lighthearted and the melodramatic ones less somber. However, all in all, the Shotgun Players triumphed in crafting a hauntingly tragic portrait of the unsatisfied American who is seduced into performing the eternalizing stunt of assassinating the president.
Contact Anna Horrocks at [email protected].