“You wanna shoot a president?” This startling sentiment is one of the opening lines of “Assassins,” the patriotic musical directed by Leonard Kelly, which graced Madeleine Wing Adler Theatre last week. The show focuses on the past presidential assassinations, whose culprit’s instrument of choice was, in most cases, a gun. The show’s ‘free preview’ night was last Tuesday, ironically contrasting the shows theme of exterminating presidents with the night’s event of selecting the future commander-in-chief.
West Chester University’s theatre company brought exciting insights and invigorating performances to the “Assassins” stage. The set, and much of the dialogue creates the air of a carnival shooting gallery.
The background of the stage is a giant bull’s-eye board, with a prize booth marks; the setting for the production’s opening scene.
The first performer who lends his voice to the stage is the proprietor, played by WCU vocal performance major Sean Mehlbaum. The proprietor continually reintroduces the shooting gallery theme while representing the voice of action, from the opening number (light-heartedly persuading the characters to commit their crimes) to appearing in their actual crime scenes.
After the first opening scene, the play departs on a fast-paced journey into each of the assassin’s motives, emotions, and actions. The audience is guided through this voyage by the balladeer (Andy Truscott) who, serving to contrast the proprietor, acts as the connection between the audience and the assassins as a voice of hope, promoting America as a land of endless opportunity. The balladeer repeatedly introduces background information and intermingles with the assassins; such as addressing John Wilkes Booth (Mike Thatcher) directly as he struggles to send out his message declaring “the country is not what it was.”
Splitting musical numbers are many short scenes involving historically incorrect interactions between the assassins. These scenes allow further glances to be made of the assassin’s character. Charles Guiteau (Don Rider), responsible for the assassination of President Garfield) is seen continuously promoting his highly-plagiarized book, John Hinckley Jr. (Colin Earyes) obsesses over a picture of Jodie Foster, and Guiseppe Zangara (attempted assassinator of FDR, played by Jon DeGaetano) frequents the stage with wails of stomach pains, for which there seems to be no cure.
A great portion of the humor in this darkly patriotic production comes from interactions between Sara Jane Moore (Ashley Eidam) and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Melissa Castillo). In the play, these devious women interact quite often, though in real life they never met but attempted to assassinate Gerald Ford on separate occasions. The hysterical scenes that unfold between these characters involve much philosophy from Squeaky’s lover, Charlie Manson, a great deal of absent-minded, somewhat ditzy, behavior from Fromme, and a tortured KFC bucket, which symbolizes a graven image of Moore’s father, whom the duo tries to ‘murder’, first through the ‘evil eye’, then through repeated gunshots.
Though most of the assassins have a corresponding musical number, two have a different representation. Sam Byck, who attempted to assassinate Nixon by flying a jetliner into the White House, and Lee Harvey Oswald, whose assassination of JFK is still surrounded by controversy, focus on dialogue and interactions to tell their tales. Represented in two wildly emotional monologues, Byck (theatre major Peter Collier) rants to a tape recorder addressing famous influential figures of his time and the flaws he sees in society. Byck himself provides a visual and emotional contrast. Dressed in a Santa Claus suit, which would typically promote joy, gaiety, and a general audience to children, Byck’s bipolar moods and crude language lend startling energy and emotion to his drunken, open-minded accusations.
The rallying moment between all the characters is the cooperative inspiration of Lee Harvey Oswald. Originally encountered by John Wilkes Booth, Oswald ,played by senior Eric Scotolati, is eventually introduced and persuaded to join assassins before and after his own time period. The other characters fight to prove to Oswald he is the key force to tie all of them together: “without you we’re a bunch of freaks – with you we’re a force of history!” Though reluctant at first, Oswald eventually decides to assassinate John Kennedy and joins the other players in their closing reprise of the opening musical number, “Everybody’s Got The Right.”
Each character embraces a different personality than the next, and as a whole represent a very diverse group. However, the cast is not the only element in producing a production such as Assassins.
WCU’s theatre company breathes life and animation into the retired souls of the Assassins.
Though it “takes many men to make a gun”, as Leon Czolgosz (Matthew Whalen) announces, “Assassins” shows it takes but one man (or woman) to put it to use, clearly becoming evident through the monumental moments of American history represented in this heart-stopping production.
Tara Tanzos is a second-year student majoring in secondary English education. She can be reached at TT649875@wcupa.edu.