Hail to the Grief
By Tom Wachunas
I am he as you are he as you are me / And we are all together / See how they run like pigs from a gun / See how they fly / I’m crying – from “I Am the Walrus” by John Lennon and Paul McCartney
The etymology of the English word assassin is a fascinating one, derived from the Arabic hashishiyyn, meaning “hashish users.” During the time of the Crusades, a fanatical Muslim sect was notorious for killing enemy leaders after working themselves into a frenzy brought on by ingesting hashish.
And so it is that the one-act musical, Assassins, currently playing at Canton’s Players Guild Theatre, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, probes the intentions and motivations of nine disillusioned and deluded individuals who either attempted or succeeded in killing a U.S President. One might say that their frenzy-inducing drug of choice wasn’t hashish, but rather their dangerously festering resentments after their desires for societal inclusion, attention, or celebrity had been denied. Sound familiar? As one of the show’s songs puts it, "There's another national anthem, folks, for those who never win... We're the other national anthem, folks, the ones who can't get in..." It’s a thin line indeed between the American Dream and American Scream, between “All Lives Matter” and “All Lives Shattered.”
The narrative is a time warp that plucks these individuals (some more infamous than others) from history and places them all together in a surrealistic carnival setting, complete with a grimy shooting gallery (scenic design by Joshua Erichsen), adorned with targets bearing a President’s face. Director Jonathan Tisevich clearly has an uncanny gift for unpacking and fleshing out the characters’ challenging and complex strata of emotional and psychological nuance. And in turn, it’s the astonishingly gifted cast members, both as singers and actors, who altogether transform what could have been merely absurd or toxic cartoons into authentic and impactful human presences. Their visceral, in-your-face energy is all the more augmented by the black-box surrounds of the Guild’s arena theater.
Micah Harvey brings sinister relish to his role of the carnival proprietor - a Mephistophelean huckster who provides guns and temptations to his customers. Joe Halladey III doubles as the “Balladeer” and, late in the proceedings, the John F. Kennedy assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. As the former, he’s a crooning narrator who articulates Sondheim’s lyrical verbosity with practically magical ease, often mocking the deviant thoughts and actions of the other characters. As Oswald, he’s an arresting figure, flummoxed and haunted by the pleas of the other assassins to join their “family.”
Vincent Sisley plays Guiseppe Zangara, who attempted to kill FDR in 1933. Jacob Sustersic plays Leon Czolgosz, who killed William McKinley in 1901. Both performers invest their performances with palpable gravitas, delivering their rants and grievances with convincing accents (Italian and Polish, respectively).
Craig Joseph deftly paints an edgy portrait of optimistic clownishness with a brooding underside in his colorful role of Charles Guiteau, who shot James Garfield in 1881. As John Wilkes Booth, Jimmy Ferko is a particularly magnetic presence, and for all of his character’s arrogance, oddly likeable. Corey Paulus is truly scary as Samuel Byck, who intended to kill Richard Nixon in 1974. Clad in a tattered Santa costume, he’s at first utterly hilarious in a dark sort of way, bellowing all manner of foul-mothed (and full-mouthed) insults and complaints which relentlessly escalate into unfettered rage.
Speaking of dark hilarity, Julie Connair’s portrayal of Sara Jane Moore, who tried to kill Gerald Ford in 1975, borders on comic genius. One of the most memorable passages of the evening transpires when she shares a scene with Taylor Marie Scott, playing “Squeaky” Fromme, another would-be Ford assassin who was obsessed with Charles Manson. Scott’s performance is a chilling look at insane idol worship. Russell Jones is similarly commanding in his role of John Hinkley Jr., who wanted to impress his imagined lover (Jody Foster) by shooting Ronald Reagan in 1981.
Through it all, the excellent off-stage orchestra conducted by Steve Parsons plays, often very softly, an intriguing, almost ghostly montage of period-style tunes reminiscent of ragtime, old-timey folk songs, or circus marches.
Here then is a challenging tragicomedy, a startling parade – at once bleak, vulgar, and uncomfortably funny - of wounded or hopelessly corrupted psyches. And with no intermission, it seemed to me at one point an agonizingly long parade. But on further reflection, an intermission might well have broken the intensity necessary to let these disturbing characters and their twisted stories resonate beyond their own times and thus evoke something much more urgent and timely.
So I don’t think this work is just about the horrific consequences of the moral/psychological aberrations that triggered a handful of murderous individuals from America’s past. What makes it still stand as an electrifying work of theatre art is in how it becomes a compelling indictment of the terrible spiritual poverty of not only our current American culture, but of the global human condition as well.
We have met the enemy… With a broken moral compass, when we’re not running about in aimless panic, we’re flying upside down. Meanwhile the walrus, as it were, sits in our living rooms. We’re crying. Goo–goo-g’joob.
Assassins, at Canton Players Guild’s William G. Fry Theatre, 1001 Market Avenue N., Canton, Ohio / Shows THROUGH SEPTEMBER 18 – Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. / TICKETS $27 for adults, $19 for ages 17 and under, $24 for seniors / Order at www.playersguildtheatre.com or call 330.453.7617
PHOTOS: Top photo of cast by Scott Heckel, Canton Repository / other photos for Players Guild by Mike Akers