NOT-SO-STRAIGHT SHOOTERS The 'Assassins' cast. [Photo by Seth Jacobson]
What in the world prompts wingnuts to try to shoot a president? We might shrug and dismiss their motivations as generic craziness, but fortunately Assassins is interested in them as individuals.
The 1990 musical, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by John Weidman, is getting an excellent production by Contemporary Theater Company in Wakefield (through November 2), with bare-bones staging but good voices and absorbing acting, directed by Jimmy Calitri.
Nine successful or foiled assassins are depicted, and the initial ensemble presentation of them does understandably generalize before they disperse. All but one sing “Everybody’s Got the Right,” in the darkly humorous agreement that the pursuit of happiness is an American birthright. Lee Harvey Oswald (Patrick Saunders) is not among them; he appears toward the end of Act Two, since the most recent presidential murder, of JFK, still echoes as the most traumatic.
We get two guides to the unfolding account of malign intentions. First is the Proprietor (Hannah Van Meter) of a metaphorical shooting gallery, at which the assassins receive their guns. And then there is the Balladeer (Matthew Royality-Lindman), whose job it is to belt out these grim stories in song.
We start out with perhaps the most vilified villain of the 19th century, John Wilkes Booth (Patrick Keefe). We see a projection of an actual wanted poster dated six days after the Lincoln assassination, the $100,000 reward a considerable sum even today. Booth’s fury over Lincoln’s treatment of the South is conveyed, but the actor’s resentment over bad reviews seems to get equal weight. He’s injured from that balcony leap we recall from junior high history, and soon we see him in a bar next to a seedy guy in a dirty Santa costume. That is Samuel Byck (Joshua Andrews), who hijacked a plane he intended to fly into the White House to kill Richard Nixon. Buying a round of drinks is Charles Guiteau (Brian Mulvey), who killed President James Garfield.
Anarchist Leon Czolgosz (David Sackal) also succeeded, fatally shooting William McKinley. Sackal is chilling as he describes the horrific conditions of his work at a searing furnace in a glass bottle factory. But fortunately, there were more failed assassination attempts than successful ones. Angered by American social injustice in this account, Italian immigrant Giuseppe Zangara (Jon Dyson and Denny Keohane sharing the role in different performances) fired at FDR when he was president-elect, instead hitting and killing the mayor of Chicago. Not much better a shot was John Hinckley, Jr. (Jesse Dufault), who hoped to impress actress Jodie Foster and hit Ronald Reagan with a ricochet.
And there was Sara Jane Moore (Rae Mancini in full whimsicality), angry at the government and wanting to be taken seriously, who missed Gerald Ford. (In a delightful touch, the reputedly hapless Ford helps her pick up bullets she dropped.) That was just two weeks after Charles Manson acolyte Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Shannon Hartman) didn’t even got a shot off when she aimed her pistol at Ford, hoping that Manson would be able to give a speech at her trial and save the world.