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Perfectly Killing 'Assassins'

Pforzheimer House Drama Society Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim Book by John Weidman Pforzheimer House Dining Hall May 1-11, 1997

By Jamie L. Jones

If you want to cheer yourself up, killing the President of the United States is probably the last thing you'd think of. But for the characters in Stephen Sondheim's Assassins, nothing else comes close. "Everybody's got the right to be happy," they say over and over, and stake that right throughout history by shooting presidents from Lincoln to Kennedy.

The play opens with John Wilkes Booth (Jason McNeely '00) peddling off guns to the cast of assassins in a song fittingly titled "Kill a President." Booth cheerfully convinces each assassin that the way to overcome his or her problem--whether political, job-related, or personal frustration--is to kill the president. This opening scene provided the audience's first taste of the Pforzheimer House production's absolutely gorgeous ensemble of voices; McNeely's rich tenor was especially memorable. The scene ends as each assassin points his or her gun at the audience, smiling--a gesture used often during the play that was effectively unsettling.

Lincoln appears briefly in his theater seat in the balcony, but the subject of the play is the assassin, not the victim. Afterwards, the audience sees Booth curled up with a bottle of wine and an old blanket. His pain and confusion is almost pitiable, yet McNeely's performance was also chilling enough to make the audience feel guilty for sympathizing with an assassin. Juliene James '00 appears onstage with him as The Balladeer, a narrator of sorts who comments on and interacts with the characters, falling somewhere in between Jiminy Cricket and a Greek chorus. She cuts into Booth's sad, drunken ramblings both to point out Booth's ultimate place in the history of assassins and to chastise him for it. "Johnny," as she calls him, paved the way for all future assassins, but, as she adds, "angry men don't write the rules and men with guns don't right the wrongs." Although the character is detached and ironic, James played the part expressively and effectively, and exhibited a beautiful voice.

Each successive scene tells the story of another assassin in a similar way. The assassins' stories are fictitiously intertwined: Charles Guiteau, who eventually assassinated James Garfield; Leon Czolgosz, who killed William McKinley; Guiseppe Zangara, who attempted to assassinate Franklin D. Roosevelt; would-be Gerald Ford assassins Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme and Sara Jane Moore; Sam Byck, who plotted to kill Nixon; and John Hinckley, who shot Ronald Reagan. The time gap separating each of the assassinations (or attempted assassinations) is given no heed: placing these disparate events side by side allows them to interact in a kind of fantastic sphere that brilliantly emphasizes the assassin mindset.

Guiteau (Joseph Nuccio '00) is a sleazy, wheeling-dealing character out to promote his book and acquire the ambassadorship to France, complete to the shiny suit and slicked-back hair. He constantly encourages Leon Czologsz (Rodrigo Chazaro '99), a disgruntled immigrant whose complaints parody the labor movement of the first half of the century. The scenes featuring these two are frequently juxtaposed with those involving Sam Byck (Kenneth Weber), a man obsessed with the right to protest.

In their "saner" moments, these three characters seem to embody some of the ideals and significant moments throughout United States history. Their over-the-top acts, however, draw attention to the thin line that seperates the pursuit of rights from the mad demands of insane men. Nuccio's Guiteau was so cheerful as to be alarming and Chazaro as Czolgosz sometimes assumed a glazed, obsessed look while describing the unfairness facing him in his job. The audience realizes that Byck has crossed the line into the realm of lunacy as he is observed recording tapes of his complaints to Leonard Bernstein, imploring him to write more love songs ("What the world needs now is love, sweet love," he cries). Weber's portrayal of the Santa-Claus-suit-clad Byck was convincing, if a little surreal. Giuseppe Zangara (Edward Ha '97), like Czologsz, is a skeptic of capitalism, but his smaller role and reduced presence in the play makes him harder to characterize.

The other assassins are driven to assassination by personal problems. Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (Candace Hoyes '99) and Sara Jane Moore (Jennifer Tattenbaum '98) plot to kill Ford because of their obsessions with Charles Manson, while John Hinckley (Andrew Hamlen) resorts to attempting to kill Reagan to attract Jodie Foster's attention. The scene in which Fromme and Moore decide to kill Ford was the funniest in the whole production: the rapid-fire non sequiturs were played perfectly. Their psychological problems--derived from disastrous relationships with their fathers--reach a peak as they address Colonel Sanders' picture on a Kentucky Fried Chicken Bucket as if it were their fathers. The two give the box the evil eye--"Charlie's" instruction for killing someone--in the most hilarious moment of their laugh-filled scene. John Hinckley is much more somber, as a disturbed artist tyring to write a song to "Jodie" (Foster), the object of his obession. His attempt to assassinate Ronald Reagan is comically depicted by his shooting at a projection of Reagan's picture on the wall of the stage: he shoots, the picture disappears, then reappears again and again.

The final assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, played subtly by Daniel Zaitchik '98, is given special prominence. As he stands in the Texas Book Depository Building on November 22, 1963, the cast of assassins appears as a kind of ghostly support group, each announcing his/her name and assassination in Alcoholics Anonymous-like fashion, explaining that Oswald must kill Kennedy, for their sakes. The conspiracy theory is given a new spin here, as Booth, the leader of the dead assassins, claims that the combined spirit of the assassins is "the real conspiracy." "In fifty years, they'll still be arguing about the grassy knoll," he says; Oswald will live on in infamy. [In describing the demise of Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman--a "nobody" like Oswald--Booth invokes a fascinating element of meta-theatricality:] "Attention must be paid," he says of the assassins. And, as evidence by the Pforzheimer House Drama Society's excellent production, it is indeed.

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