‘Assassins’ explores the killers behind the deeds

John Wilkes Booth (Mark Linehan) and the company in "Assassins." Photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures

John Wilkes Booth (Mark Linehan) and the company in “Assassins.” Photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures

WATERTOWN — The word is infamous. But the majority of the word “infamous” — which means “well known for some bad quality or deed” — is “famous” and the definition of the word itself tells you that the person who became infamous committed a deed so heinous that it pretty much made them a household name.
Just by being connected to the assassination or attempted assassination of a U.S. president or other powerful historical figures, the characters in the New Repertory Theatre production of the Stephen Sondheim musical “Assassins” have become forever joined at the hip to the person they killed or attempted to kill. They have achieved their own kind of immortality.
The piece begins in a carnival shooting gallery, where The Proprietor (Benjamin Evett) makes sure each of the assassins is outfitted with the proper weapon — and the chance to explain themselves.
Did proud Southerner and famed actor John Wilkes Booth (Mark Linehan) kill Lincoln as a statement about the Civil War or did he have other reasons? Booth towers over the others because his assassination became the template for all others and the fact that he killed the most iconic  figure in the history of the U.S. presidency.
Linehan has both the voice and the acting chops for Booth, and is convincing in the agony that he feels as he lies dying at the thought that people might misunderstand his motives, such as the taunting suggestion offered by others on stage that he might have done the deed to get attention after some bad reviews.

McCaela Donovan and Paula Langton in "Assassins." Photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures

McCaela Donovan and Paula Langton in “Assassins.” Photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures

John Weidman’s book goes into each character’s grievances, real or imagined, and Weidman and Sondheim take the time to try and get into their psyches.
Sondheim is nothing if not ironic, none more so than in the jaunty production number “Everybody’s Got The Right” (…to be happy“), an ode to pursuing your dream wherever it takes you, even if you are a merchant of death.
McCaela Donovan and Paula Langton perfectly capture the quirks and odd angles of two of the most interesting members of the tribe of infamy, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Sara Jane Moore, the two would-be assassins of President Gerald Ford who made their attempts just 17 days apart.
Fromme’s devotion to the murderous Charles Manson and the fascination of would-be Reagan assassin John Hinckley Jr. (Patrick Varner) with actress Jodie Foster forms the basis for one of the more interesting musical numbers, “Unworthy of Your Love,” a tome to the unholy devotion they feel to Manson and Foster.
Evan Gambardella shines as The Balladeer, a narrator who gives the characters’ back stories before they have the chance to explain themselves to the audience, and doubles as Lee Harvey Oswald, egged on by Booth to join the club by killing Kennedy.
Not all of the members of the “club” will be as well known to the audience, such as
Giuseppe Zangara (Harrison Bryan), who it is believed was trying to kill President-elect Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 when he ended up shooting five other people, killing Chicago mayor Anton Cermak.
One of the finest hours of Weidman’s book is Peter Adams’ monologue as Samuel Byck, who died during a 1974 attempt to hijack a plane and crash it into Richard Nixon’s White House. He made audio recordings of his plans and sent them to columnist Jack Anderson and expected to be seen as a hero, and Weidman uses tapes sent to Leonard Bernstein and Nixon to create a compelling look at the man who, while coming apart at the seams, still possessed the will and the wiles to almost pull off the plot.
Evett as The Proprietor and the rest of the company will sing about their easy access to weapons in the searing “Gun Song,“ and there will come a point where we in the audience will be targets.
New Rep Artistic Director Jim Petosa, from his director’s notes, is yet another self-admitted Sondheimophile among area artistic directors at a time when there has been a resurgence in interest in his works.
Petosa also directed “Assassins” in 2012 in his role as director of the Boston University School of Theatre and he has added some touches that give this production more clarity than other productions.
“Assassins” may not be in the same class as some of the master’s other works,
but it bears his imprint in the characters’ ability to unsettle us — seen most recently in Lyric’s production of “Sweeney Todd” — and have us look at how we as a society — through perhaps a cavalier attitude towards guns, or a either a naiveté and laxity on the need for security for their human targets –may have nourished and enabled them.
The New Repertory Theatre production of “Assassins.” Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by John Weidman. Based on an idea by Charles Gilbert Jr. Directed by Jim Petosa. Musical direction: Matthew Stern. Choreography: Judith Chaffee. Set, Kamilla Kurmanbekova. Costumes, Chelsea Kerl. Lights, Jedidiah Roe. Sound, Michael Policare. At the Mosesian Theatre in the Arsenal Center for the Arts through Oct. 26. http://www.newrep.org.

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