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‘Assassins’ Review: Balancing Terror and Comedy

Jacob Thomas Less, Lisa Kate Joyce, Daniel Forest Sullivan, Jackson Jirard, Shonna Cirone, and Phil Tayler in "Assassins" at The Lyric Stage Company of Boston
Jacob Thomas Less, Lisa Kate Joyce, Daniel Forest Sullivan, Jackson Jirard, Shonna Cirone, and Phil Tayler in "Assassins" at The Lyric Stage Company of Boston By Courtesy of Mark S. Howard
By Makayla I. Gathers, Crimson Staff Writer

Content warning: Description of gun violence, death, and suicide.

A former U.S. Secret Service agent who witnessed the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy recently shared his account of the event, introducing a new detail about a bullet taken from the scene of the incident. With this new revelation only adding to the already numerous conspiracy theories surrounding the president’s death, one might wonder: What really happened? What if it was explained through song?

Directed by Courtney O’Connor, with music direction by Dan Rodriguez and select choreography by Ilyse Robbins, “Assassins” runs at The Lyric Stage Company of Boston through Oct. 15. The Stephen Sondheim musical tells a thought-provoking, jaw-dropping, and emotionally confusing story, as nine of America’s most ambitious individuals unite to discuss — and belt — what put them on the map: assassination.

“Assasins” is not about the presidents, and it makes that clear: Most of the presidents are assassinated offstage, with their presence depicted through campaign songs and slogans. The play is truly meant to focus on the assassins.

O’Connor’s direction of the actors is brilliant, and it places the audience members in the role of unsuspecting accomplices. As the actors parade through the aisles, share vulnerable stories, and play carnival games like shooting at taunting Ronald Reagan heads, it’s almost too easy to forget their ultimate, sinister goals.

The scenic and lighting design by Baron E. Pugh are innovative and effective, as they reflect the unexpected and startling events of the show. Initially, the scenic design simply features wood planks — but history literally unfolds as once-sealed doors and windows open and reveal various sets for countless scenes. The lighting functions as an indicator of morality. For example, it basks the characters in intense reds and flutters to mimic an electric chair. These effects help connect each scene to the next, ensuring an adequate pacing of the show.

Hidden behind the set, the band highlights and complements the story without taking away from the actors’ performances. With distinct sounds of guitars, banjos, and marching drums, the show depicts historic America through music, and this is only fully realized as the assassins sing their ballads. The ballads humanize and create empathy for each character: If someone is passionately singing about economic injustice, it could be easy to forget that they are actively attempting to assassinate President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The audience meets The Balladeer (Dan Prior) — the critic and bystander who analyzes all of the assassins and their reasonings for their actions — before any other character in the show. Prior brings an innocence and sincerity to The Balladeer that creates a character who resonates with the audience.

During their performances, the assassins truly shine. “The Ballad of Booth” is a standout song. “Unworthy of Your Love,” a romantic duet sung by John Hinckley (Jacob Thomas Less) and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Lisa Kate Joyce) will evoke tears — even though it is about Charlie Manson. Joyce and Less, portraying the youngest characters, bring a certain naivety to the song, which serves as a veil for the questionable choices their characters make.

The motif of dangers cloaked in unsuspecting wrapping can also be seen through songs like “Gun Song.” Its dark meaning disguised in a comedic four-part harmony is performed by an assassin barbershop quartet featuring Leon Czolgosz (Daniel Forest Sullivan), John Wilkes Booth (Robert St. Laurence), Charles J. Guiteau (Christopher Chew), and Sara Jane Moore (Shonna Cirone). It is one of the most musically satisfying moments of the show, but is utterly terrifying when listened to carefully.

For this production, O’Connor made the notable choice to represent guns through hand gestures instead of props. This decision shapes the tone of the show: The assassins are no longer caricatures from history books — instead, they are real people who stand in front of the audience, seemingly harmless. Stripped of visible, tangible weapons, the audience only looks at frustrated members of the working class — a flustered mother, angsty teenagers — who serve as reflections of themselves.

The show, while over 30 years old, runs scarily parallel to the present day. It not only discusses the danger of guns and their accessibility, but it also discusses the harmful ideologies and social issues inherent to the plague of gun violence. O’Connor ingeniously makes the audience consider and interpret the events of the past. One of the production’s mantras, “Not all American dreams should come true,” is comedic, but it also prompts the audience to reflect on exactly what rights everyone should have.

The subject matter in this production is handled realistically and carefully, evoking a balance of sensibility and critique. Lyric Stage’s production of “Assassins” is seamless, and there is never a dull moment — the show is guaranteed to leave audiences speechless.

— Staff writer Makayla I. Gathers can be reached at makayla.gathers@thecrimson.com.

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