Shotgun’s ‘Assassins’ is solid, entertaining and thoughtful

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: 3/5 » Recommended)

This reviewer is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins”, like much of his other work, seems to have an unlikely premise for a musical. It tells the story, in song, of nine presidential assassins. The story is framed by a carnival game in which a barker invites the various players to step up and kill a president.

The assassins, horrifying misfits all, nevertheless evoke a strange kind of sympathy in the viewer with their desperate dreams and sincerity. In the song “Another National Anthem”, they reflect upon this:

We’re the other national anthem, folks,
The ones that can’t get in
To the ball park.

Spread the word…

There’s another national anthem, folks,
For those who never win,
For the suckers, for the pikers,
For the ones who might have been…

Late in the show, a group of assassins, singing of murder, declare:

“All you have to do / Is move your little finger, / Move your little finger and — / You can change the world”

But, of course, they do not change the world, even when the President is killed, the system continues, the story goes on in its inexorable way. This, of course, is a premise that can be challenged. Many would argue that the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy profoundly changed the world and the course of history, but surely not in ways that the killers anticipated or desired. In this challenging play, complex themes lead to complex thoughts and understandings.

From left to right: Steven Hess as Charles Guitrau, Dan Saski as Leon Czolgosz and Galen Murphy-Hoffman as John Wilkes Booth. Photo Credit: Pak Han.

All of this makes for fascinating theatre, especially as explored by Sondheim and his collaborator John Weidman, with Sondheim’s typical wry humor, psychological insight, social consciousness and musical sophistication all on display.

The play was originally scheduled to open in 2001, but was delayed for three years because of the events of 9/11. People found it too controversial. It is still controversial, and shocking to see, especially at the time of a Presidential election. Our nation has a long history of attempted (and successful) Presidential assassinations. Like the Big Quake we all expect in San Francisco, we all know that some day another attempt will be made. Will it be tomorrow?

Shotgun’s presentation seems to be cognizant of all these implications, and is distinguished by excellent acting and fine staging by director Susannah Martin. The musical direction by David Moschler serves the score well, as do Nina Ball’s carnival setting and Christine Crook’s costumes.

This is the second opportunity in two years for Bay area audiences to see this remarkable play. (It was presented last year in an award winning production by Ray Of Light Theatre). It deserves the attention.

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“Assassins”, book by James Weidman, music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, orchestrations by Michael Starobin, produced by Shotgun Players. Director: Susannah Martin. Musical Director: David Moschler. Set Design: Nina Ball. Lighting Design: Gabe Maxson. Costume Design: Christine Crook. 

Giuseppe Zangara: Aleph Ayin. Sara Jane Moore: Rebecca Castelli. John Hickley: Danny Cozart. Sam Byck: Ryan Drummond. Proprietor: Jeff Garrett. Charles Guiteau: Steven Hess. Squeaky Fromme: Cody Metzger. John Wilkes Booth: Galen Murphy-Hoffman. Leon Czolgosz: Dan Saski. Balladeer: Kevin Singer.

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