Conference of Killers

Arizona Onstage shines with its production of Stephen Sondheim's disturbing 'Assassins'

The premise of Stephen Sondheim's Assassins is so creepy that audiences aren't sure how to react. What is one to make of nine presidential assassins and would-be assassins, awarded two hours of blackly comic vignettes and song-and-dance numbers (a pastiche of American styles, still sounding like Sondheim)? When Arizona Onstage Productions launched its version of the show last week, the opening-night crowd took a good half-hour to figure out if they were allowed to laugh, or even applaud. In contrast, some members of the second-night audience reportedly laughed at such inappropriate spots that a couple of the actors gave them plenty of time to get back to their cars before they felt safe enough to leave the theater.

The creepiest thing about Assassins is that its president-killers aren't so different from some of the people sitting with us in the theater. Look around: There's the cultured fellow snarling to his companion that the administration is carrying this country to hell even without benefit of a handbasket. There's the lonely misfit whose private obsessions we'd really rather not know. There's the freaky girl with wild eyes and something dangerous under her skirt.

It's not such a big step, is it, from wanting the president out of office to wanting him dead? It's not such a big step, either, from thinking, "They'll all be sorry when I kill myself" to murmuring, "They'll all be sorry when I kill the president."

They're all around us--the activists, the brooders, the disenfranchised, the delicately balanced. And there they are on stage, where John Wilkes Booth croons to his not-too-reluctant successors, "All you have to do is move your little finger and you can change the world."

Assassins, with book by John Weidman and music and lyrics by Sondheim, pretty much flopped during its brief Off Broadway run in 1990-91. But, having finally opened on Broadway a couple of weeks ago, it immediately picked up a slew of Tony nominations. Simultaneously, Arizona Onstage Productions has mounted its own version at the University of Arizona, allowing us to discover this frightening, funny, mesmerizing show for ourselves.

The lights come up on a shooting gallery in a fairground; the proprietor entices passersby with the words, "Hey, pal--feelin' blue? Don't know what to do? C'mere and kill a president." It's a way to pass the time, to blow off steam, to display some skill, and maybe to win a prize--some sort of immortality in the history books. That's mighty appealing to people with a strong sense of being nobody.

The proprietor quickly attracts customers, from Lincoln-killer Booth, a suave actor, to Reagan-shooter John Hinkley, a geeky loner desperate to prove himself to his imaginary love, actress Jodie Foster. Through the course of the show, the assassins--though spread across more than a century--meet, mingle, bicker and spur one another on.

Even in the scenes featuring only one or two of the assassins, director Carol Calkins always has at least one other lurking in the background, watching, haunting the others.

Booth, as the pioneer in this field, is a pivotal figure here; UA senior Ben Crawford makes him a dapper, smooth-voiced figure, an eloquent and fast-talking Southerner and manipulative actor to his very bones. But perhaps the most disturbing character, especially as portrayed here, is Samuel Byck, who hijacked a jet in 1974 with the intention of crashing it into the White House. Byck, like Booth, was a talker who demanded an audience; he sent tapes of his intermittently demented monologs to celebrities, and once picketed the White House dressed in a Santa suit. As played by J. Andrew McGrath, Byck is the ultimate bad Santa, shuffling around in a soiled red suit, railing against the unspecified failures of Richard Nixon, trying to seem like a regular guy chatting over the backyard fence but falling into brief fits of spitting rage. McGrath has a hollowed-out look, and his face is a scoreboard of fleeting second thoughts. His two monologs alone are enough to make you wonder about your ostensibly ordinary neighbors when you get home.

Blatant comic relief comes from Liz McMahon as Sara Jane Moore and Christine Woods as Charles Manson-acolyte "Squeaky" Fromme, both of whom independently tried to shoot Gerald Ford within a month of each other. Local stage veteran McMahon has her ditzy, demented housewife down pat, and UA undergrad Woods is funny and spooky as the girl who wants to kill the president to prove herself to Manson. She also has a wonderful Carpenters-like pop-schlock duet with Philip Seymour Hoffman-lookalike Kevin Johnson as Hinkley; they're two young weirdoes mooning over inaccessible loves.

Another standout among the assassins is David Olsen as foppish Charles J. Guiteau, who killed James Garfield for a complex of odd reasons, including publicizing his obscure little book and avenging his failure to be appointed ambassador to France--something usually not awarded to nonentities like Guiteau. Olsen has a wonderfully loony number as he tries to remain optimistic even while dancing up the scaffold to his own execution.

Among the rest of the very large cast, two merit particular mention. Nick Sarando is a likable, folksy balladeer, who serves as the play's wry conscience during its first half, and Monte Ralstin is sinister and seductive in his brief opening stint as the proprietor.

This is only Arizona Onstage Production's second show, but with this and last summer's Falsettoland, it is already maintaining high artistic standards while daring to present material that is, to say the least, unhackneyed. If you haven't yet decided to see this latest production, rest assured that Assassins is worth a shot.

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