Inside the minds of 'Assassins'

Dark humor resounds in controversial play at CAST

In the opening scene of “Assassins,” the proprietor of a carnival shooting gallery entices a series of lost souls to kill a president. He offers them guns and tells each that shooting a president is the answer to his or her problems.

As two of the would-be assassins get in a scuffle while vying for the proprietor’s attention, the latter becomes startled.

“Watch it now, no violence,” he says. It’s the first of many intended contradictions in the musical revue, which opens Friday at CAST Theatre for a five-week run under the direction of Mark Steighner.

“Assassins” juxtaposes the stories of nine men and women throughout history who have committed, or attempted to commit, the ultimate crime. A balladeer (played by Ky Fifer) appears periodically to narrate, often providing his own twisted commentary on what’s taking place. The musical jumps around in time and mixes historical fact and fiction with the effect of a disturbing dream.

In between historically accurate scenes of how the assassinations were carried out or attempted are scenes where assassins from various time periods mingle. In one, several assassins, including John Wilkes Booth (played by Greg Gilbertson), Leon Czolgosz (who shot President William McKinley in 1901, played by Erik Steighner) and John Hinkley (who attempted to kill President Ronald Reagan in 1981, played by Brian Merz) appear together in a bar.

In another of these scenes, Charles Manson groupie Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (played by Ashly Will) and Sarah Jane Moore (played by Alison Fitts) — both of whom attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford in 1975 — sit together on a park bench discussing Manson’s virtues over a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Which brings up another contradiction inherent in “Assassins”: it’s funny. Dark and brooding, yes, but sometimes hysterically funny.

Steighner and his cast of 12 have been rehearsing for the production since May. For Steighner, who first saw “Assassins” in 1991, it’s been a long time coming.

“I loved it right from the beginning,” he said. He tried to put it together last winter, but didn’t have enough cast members for the complex and challenging production. So he recruited some Hood River Valley High School graduates — veterans of HRVHS and CAST shows — who were returning from college for the summer, to join some older acting veterans. With the casting complete, he planned the summer show.

The original “Assassins,” by renowned lyricist-composer Stephen Sondheim and writer John Weidman, opened off-Broadway in the winter of 1991 to a sold-out run of 73 performances and good reviews. But America, on the brink of the Gulf War, wasn’t in the mood for the controversial theme of the musical and it garnered little attention outside New York until a few years later.

The show was scheduled for a Broadway revival last year, but those preparations were scrapped after Sept. 11. It’s now planned for 2003.

Steighner thinks that, despite its controversial theme in a time of intense patriotism, the time is right for doing “Assassins.”

“I think perhaps there is no more appropriate time than now,” he said. In what Steighner calls a “chilling foreshadowing” of modern events, one of the assassins, Samuel Byck, plotted to kill President Richard Nixon in 1974 by hijacking a commercial jet and crashing it into the White House.

“There’s the concept that these ideas are nothing new,” he said. And exploring the characters of the assassins “helps people understand the motivations of these people — what creates that kind of dissatisfaction?”

The ultimate relevance, perhaps, lies in the mere act of putting on the production.

“It’s a freedom of speech thing,” Steighner said, “the fact that we can do this.” Nevertheless, Steighner expects “Assassins” to generate some debate.

“I would hope there would be a lot of discussion and thought and argument about it,” he said. He points out that when the musical opened in 1991, Sondheim said that he didn’t expect people to like the show, but wanted people to be talking about it.

“What you want people to do is think and talk and maybe learn something,” Steighner said.

The actors in the musical have done a lot of learning during the past two months. Along with regular rehearsals, many have researched “their” assassin in depth. Keith DeHart, who plays Charles Guiteau, didn’t even know that President James Garfield was assassinated before he was asked by Steighner to play the role.

Garfield’s assassination in a Washington, D.C., railroad station in 1881 is “not very well known,” DeHart said, adding that the challenge has been getting in the mindset of the assassin.

“We have to play them as real people,” he said, not merely as the crazy, delusional figures in which history has cast them.

Greg Gilbertson, who plays Booth, is a veteran of CAST productions but this is one of his first musicals.

“In a musical, there’s a heightened level of emotion and passion,” he said. “You have to fill more of a space, so the connection with the audience is more impactful.”

That connection is one of the things about “Assassins” that Steighner likes.

“In most musicals, you have a lead character,” he said. In this case, there’s no lead character because it’s a revue. “But if the audience begins to relate to the characters, then they have to question why — because they’re mostly insane.” In contrast the balladeer at first seems to be the sane one. But, Steighner points out, ballads often take history and simplify it.

“So after a while, you realize the balladeer’s version of history is as skewed as the assassins’,” he said. “It puts the audience in an interesting position, which is very challenging.”

One of the signs of a great theater production is its timelessness. When “Assassins” debuted in 1991, critic Frank Rich of The New York Times wrote, “There is a shadow America, a poisoned, have-not America, that must be recognized by the prosperous majority if the violence in our history is to be understood and overcome.”

That, surely, rings as true today as it did 11 years ago.

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