Encore Michigan

‘Assassins’ gives voice to those who would kill the President at Flint Rep

Review November 12, 2018 Bridgette Redman

FLINT, Mich.–What happens when someone is frustrated at not getting what they feel they have a right to?

Well, most of us grumble a little, cuss a little, whine and then get on with our lives. Other people? They shoot presidents.

Flint Repertory Theater is producing Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s Assassins, directed by Michael Lluberes.

It’s a dark musical, which isn’t surprising given that the name “Sondheim” is attached to it, with heavy political overtones. It’s a musical that invites you to think, to reflect, to analyze. There really isn’t any point in it that is a happy-go-lucky comedy infused with love stories, though there definitely are some moments of dark humor.

It opens on a creepy carnival set, one that would do Ray Bradbury justice. The theater walls are decked with large portraits of presidents that have cross-hairs super-imposed over them. Stuffed animals hang from ropes and giant letters in a carnival font announce the main attraction, a game if you will, one called “Shoot the Prez.”

Drawing attention in the darkly painted set are two rows of grotesque masks, giant ones that almost look like severed heads. They soon take a more involved role, one designed to discomfort the audience as well as deliver metaphorical sermons to match the songs and dialogue.

Paul Nelson plays the Proprietor of the carnival and he urges people to join the game and slowly people stand from the audience and walk up on stage, accepting their mask and the squirt gun that the Proprietor gives them.

With the main players on stage, the anthem begins, claiming that everyone has a right to be happy. It is here that the show’s main weakness makes itself known. The nine-person pit band is miked, something not seemingly necessary in the small space that Flint Rep performs in. They end up drowning out the ten actors on stage and much of the lyrics are lost and hard to understand—and lyrics are crucial in a Sondheim musical.

It often takes such an effort to understand what is being sung, that it disconnects the listener from what should be the emotional investment in the show.

That aside, the entire ensemble puts in strong performances, throwing light not just on these fascinating characters out of history, but on a twisted view of the American Dream. For all of these assassins and would-be assassins have a sense of entitlement, a belief that not only do they have the right to the pursuit of happiness, but to happiness itself and if they don’t get it, then someone needs to pay.

They also want something more than just happiness. They want fame, recognition. They want to be heard. They want to be something greater than themselves. They want to be remembered.

Chris French embodies all of this with his portrayal of John Wilkes Booth, who, even more than the proprietor, becomes the one who persuades and pushes all of the other malcontents. He is the first, and in one of the musical’s most memorable songs, “The Ballad of Booth,” which becomes a duet with the Balladeer, played by Scott Anthony Joy, he tries to demand a legacy of his own making, insisting that his justifications make him a hero who is saving his country.

French puts in an incredible performance, turning history’s antagonist into an almost convincing protagonist. He is persuasive and he and Joy exhibit great chemistry throughout the production that makes one of the climactic scenes especially powerful.

Additional great chemistry is displayed by the play’s only women, Beth Guest and Mary Paige Rieffel. The two women play Sara Jane Moore and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, respectively and their glee in mutual story telling creates two women who are both fascinating and repulsive. Both are insane in different ways, ways that end up being frighteningly compatible.

Guest also puts in a wonderful scene as Emma Goldman. She and Michael Pacholski as Leon Czolgosz connect in a beautiful way that almost makes you sympathize for the Polish-American anarchist who assassinated President William McKinley.

There were many different accents from many different eras and backgrounds and all the actors handled them well, making them convincing and easy to understand.

Lluberes was brilliant in his choices on when to use the masks and when to have his actors remove them. His vision for the show was clear in the ways he moved his actors around the thrust stage turned into a circular carnival, with levels that allowed the action to constantly keep audiences engaged. He feasted them with intense blocking, unforgettable images and a careful managing of the musical’s many moods.

Lluberes does throw in some modern references, with the Proprietor sometimes wearing a “Make America Great Again” and a Trump mask showing up at a particularly political moment.

The story moves backward and forward in time, with each of the crazed characters talking to each other about their motives and how they became who they were. Some are given only a few moments, while others, like Mark Gmazel’s Samuel Byck, a Santa-clad veteran who tried to assassinate Nixon by hijacking a plane that he intended to crash into the White House, had several long monologues that gave witness to the fracturing of his mind and his slow disintegration into madness. From a recording he made for Leonard Bernstein (Byck himself also made them for Jonas Salk and a senator) to the drive to the airport, Gmazel manages to show a growing anger, a hope for change, an increasingly disorganized brain and an almost comic portrayal of those who desperately want to be heard.

Jason Briggs’ Charles Guiteau shows similar desperation, and again Lluberes adds a brilliant touch with the use of a horned devil mask which Joy puts on and removes several times as Briggs goes back and forth between his manic “Look on the Bright Side” and his melancholy “I Am Going to the Lordy.”

Shane Cinal’s scenic design surrounds the audience, bringing them into the carnival and making them complicit in the action. Cinal builds with broad strokes, large pieces of set leaning in off-kilter ways that reflect the minds of the characters.

Loren Shaw’s costuming spans many eras and creates iconic looks with the clothes while her masks terrify and amuse. Sean Devare deserves special applause for designing the masks to tower over each head and lifting the mouth to the actor’s eye level so their actual mouths were left free and they weren’t inhibited by echoing or flattened sound that masks can sometimes cause.

As Flint Youth Theater, the organization never shied away from the political. Now in its inaugural season as Flint Repertory Theater, the artistic staff is again demonstrating that they want to tell stories that have meaning and engage in current conversations. “Assassins” achieves this with a solid cast, orchestra and crew of artists who work together for some pretty powerful storytelling.

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