Killing grounds

By CAROLYN CLAY  |  July 15, 2008

Arciniegas has said he penned his own translation in order to avoid the mustiness of some British ones. Indeed, his text is more vivid than noted Chekhov translator and Tufts professor Laurence Senelick’s drier transcription. There is a fair amount of American idiom and slang, but by and large, to judge by other translations, this one is pretty faithful, with a few crude steps over the line: Chekhov characters are not “pissed off,” and they do not say, “Bullshit.” As for the production, in which there is more than one embrace that starts as a lunge, it’s as lively as the script, exuding none of the Chekhov-frustrating malaise for which Stanislavsky’s stagings were famous. And Arciniegas, though he does not stint the play’s poignant comedy, takes a sharp, unambiguous turn at the end, underlining the truth that sometimes love’s wounds are more than a metaphor.

“There are no lives of quiet desperation in here,” insists John Wilkes Booth as the cadre of losers and misfits who make up the dramatis personae of Assassins converge on the Texas Book Depository at the end of Stephen Sondheim & John Weidman’s controversial musical about folks who have shot or tried to shoot the president. Ain’t that the truth? Company One’s revival of the show (at the BCA Plaza through August 9) is so consistently strident that the musical loses some of its sting. I am not among those who find this carnival treatment of the attention-seeking fanatics and fools who have turned the American Dream murderous to be in bad taste — or dangerous in the manner of Natural Born Killers. But I do think it should be executed, so to speak, with more finesse.

Certainly it’s an audacious idea to bring together a cache of assassins and would-be assassins and turn them into one another’s support group. And the show has always been a hot potato, debuting Off Broadway in 1990 but not making it to Broadway until a Tony-winning revival originally set for 2001 but put off by 9/11 until 2004. Director Shawn LaCount and the Company One ensemble have no qualms about it, however, sinking their teeth into the disturbing material with perhaps too much zeal. Except in the overtly comic sections, which have to do with crazies who never actually shot anyone, both acting and singing can be so overwrought that the show seems more lurid cartoon than cautionary tale. There are some potentially fine performances, but LaCount wields too heavy a hand.

Not that the show itself is subtle. Prefiguring Suzan-Lori Parks’s The America Play and Top Dog/Underdog, it brings together its trigger-happy lot (minus Oswald) at a midway shooting gallery where the sinister character of the Proprietor urges them to assuage their individual frustrations by taking a shot at a president. “Everyone’s got the right” — no, not to bear arms — “to their dreams.”

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