Theater 2020’s Assassins, at St. Francis, Hits the Mark

Assassins is a musical comedy conceived by Charles Gilbert, Jr., and brought to life with a book by John Weidman and music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Playwrights Horizons gave it an Off-Broadway run in 1990, but it didn’t make it to Broadway until a Roundabout Theatre Company production in 2004, with Todd Haimes as Artistic Director. It’s now being staged by Theater 2020 at Founders Hall, St. Francis College, 180 Remsen Street.

Theater 2020’s choice of this relatively obscure piece of Sondheimiana has proved to be prescient, as the nation has, once again, been thrown into conflict over gun violence. At the play’s beginning the entire cast is on stage when David Fuller, the play’s director, takes on the role of a carnival barker urging them all to take a shot at a President. They line up, get their guns (cap pistols), and fire away at targets, all the while singing Sondheim’s opening (and closing) number, “Everybody’s Got the Right.”

Fuller later returns to the stage in different guises, most prominently as a bumbling Gerald Ford who takes a pratfall worthy of Chevy Chase, and who survives two assassination attempts. The first is by Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Jana Bernard), whose gun fails to go off; the second by Sara Jane Moore (Elizabeth Kensek), who misses. Yes, the play includes failed, as well as successful, assassins.

The entire cast is superb, but I want to give special mention to Danny Wilfred (left in photo above), who plays Charles Guiteau, assassin of James Garfield, along with several other parts, and Amber Dewey (right in photo), who plays many roles, including a balladeer; the anarchist Emma Goldman, who has an encounter with Leon Czolgosz (Evan Maltby), assassin of William McKinley; and Lee Harvey Oswald, assassin of John F. Kennedy. She plays these varied roles with great alacrity. Mr. Wilfred brings a powerful intensity of energy and charisma to his portrayal of Guiteau, a delusional, narcissistic con man who kills Garfield following the President’s rejection of his hopeless request to be named ambassador to France.

As I noted above, the play is timely because of our current focus on gun violence and its causes. Guns were used by all of the successful assassins, as well as all but one of the unsuccessful ones. The deranged Samuel Byck (David Arthur Bachrach) didn’t plan to shoot Richard Nixon. His plan, which was foiled, was to hijack a plane, which likely would have involved use of a gun, and crash it into the White House. As for the motivations of the real and would be assassins, only Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth (Josh Powell), and Leon Czolgosz, clearly appear to have acted for political reasons only (although one of the characters suggests that Booth was impelled to act because of his anger over some unfavorable reviews and rivalry with his actor brother, Edwin). Giuseppe Zangara (Robert Farruggia), whose attempt to assassinate the then President Elect Franklin D. Roosevelt was foiled by a woman’s hat in front of him, claimed to have acted out of hatred of capitalism, although some have claimed that his real target was Chicago mayor Anton Cermak, who was killed by Zangara’s supposedly stray bullet, and that Zangara was acting as a hitman for the mob. There has been much speculation about what motivated Oswald, given his having been murdered shortly after the assassination. His interrogation by the Dallas police provided little other than his response to the question, “Are you a communist?”, which elicited the response, “No, I am not a communist. I am a Marxist.” As with Zangara, there has been speculation that the Kennedy assassination was mob inspired.

As for the rest, Guiteau had the delusional belief that a speech he had made was the cause of Garfield’s election, and that the President owed him an ambassadorship. Fromme and John Hinckley (Christian Doyle), whose bullet hit but failed to kill Ronald Reagan, were both obsessed. Fromme loved the then imprisoned Charles Manson, and believed that a presidential assassination would create chaos during which he could be freed. Hinckley longed for Jodie Foster, and thought that killing Reagan would at last make him worthy of her notice and affection. Moore, at her sentencing, said that “at the time it seemed a correct expression of my anger.” Thirty two years later, on her release from prison, she said she regretted having been “blinded by my radical political views.”

The play ends with a reprise of the opening song, Sondheim’s “Everybody’s Got the Right”, which ends with the words, “Everybody’s got the right/ To their dreams.” Does everybody?

I recommend this play without reservation. Credits are also due to musical director and pianist Brandon Adams, costume designer Ben Philipp, lighting designer Giles Hogya, choreographer Judith Jarosz, and production stage manager Maria Marrero. Here’s another review. For a schedule of remaining performances see here, and you may buy tickets here, or at the door.

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