Monday, February 12, 2018

"Assassins" by Theater Latte Da at the Ritz Theater

Someone tell the story
Someone sing the song
Every now and then the country
Goes a little wrong
Every now and then a mad man's
Bound to come along
Doesn't stop the story
Story's pretty strong
Doesn't change the song.

Once again, Theater Latte Da brings us exactly the show we need, right when we need it most (see also Ragtime on the cusp of the election, and last fall's hopeful Man of La Mancha). This time it's Stephen Sondheim's darkly funny and deeply disturbing look at historical presidential assassinations and attempts, and the individuals who perpetrated these horrific crimes. Assassins is not an easy show to watch. It draws you in with the fun carnival atmosphere and the wildly comedic characters, as well as the incredible staging and performances in TLD's production, helmed by #TCTheater's best music-theater director Peter Rothstein. But it will leave you with an unpleasant feeling deep in your gut at the true horror of the crimes the assassins committed, and the world that created them, the world we all live in.

This is my second experience with Assassins, having seen Renegade Theater Company's fantastic production in Duluth a few years ago. As is always the case with Sondheim for me, I get it more the second time around. The musical is a fantastical story about people who tried or succeeded in assassinating a U.S. President, all of them meeting in a sort of carnival/dream/underworld, outside of time and place. Very dark, very funny, and more than a little scary as you get a closer look at people who, for various reasons, felt they needed to commit these horrible acts of violence on the national stage. It doesn't go too deeply into any one story (look to the excellent notes in the playbill for historical context), but it does give you a glimpse into each of these troubled individuals, most of whom I had never heard of before seeing the show, and make you want to know more (my fellow Twin Cities Theater Blogger Gina from The Room Where It Happens recommends the book American Assassins: The Darker Side of Politics).*

the Assassins chorus line (photo by Dan Norman)
Assassins features nine people who made an assassination attempt on eight presidents, four of which were successful. It's an intriguing idea to compare all of their stories, backgrounds, and outcomes, and see what it has to say about politics, celebrity, and mental illness (and why not do it in musical theater form?). Most of the assassins used guns as their weapon of choice, except for one particularly creative individual who tried to hijack a plane to fly into the White House to kill Nixon. The Proprietor sells them their weapons, while a Balladeer sings their stories. The show is bookended by the two most famous assassins, John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald, who is talked into his infamous act by all of the assassins who have come before (and after) him. The culmination of all of the stories told in the show is in this final conversation and its devastating results. In the final moments of the show, the infamous film of the Kennedy assassination plays on a loop on multiple small screens on stage, leaving no doubt that this is a dangerous and scary carnival we've entered.

John Wilkes Booth in his moment of bloody triumph
(photo by Dan Norman)
Theater Latte Da has taken the carnival theme of the musical and ran with it to some fun places. An hour before the show, the audience is welcomed into the onstage carnival where we can buy food and drinks (what carnival is complete without mini donuts?!), play games, and mingle with the cast in costume. I found it to be a little overwhelming and too much stimulation in a small space and preferred to watch it from the comfort of my seat, but it's a fun idea and a fantastic way to get the audience immersed in the world of the play (as is the staging, which has the assassins frequently traipsing through the audience). In addition to the carnival games, the stage features a balcony around the back of the stage with various stairs and ladders leading to it, and portraits of the presidents which are ripped down at each assassination (scenic design by Eli Sherlock). Perhaps most chilling, a bell is rung four times with each successful assassination. The lighting design (by Marcus Dilliard) enhances the warped carnival theme, with red, white, and blue bulbs flashing maniacally, and the whole stage turning red in dramatic moments.

A cool feature of the musical is that it's set in various historical time periods, and also in a world outside of time. Sondheim's brilliant score reflects that, with songs from a variety of styles and eras, as do the costumes (designed by Alice Fredrickson), from Civil War era fancy suits to '70s hippie garb, to some brightly stylized carnival costumes. The mish-mash of musical and sartorial styles keeps the audience on their toes.

Assassins, like all Latte Da shows, is perfectly cast. I could not come up with a better cast if I tried, and in fact many of my favorite actors are gathered in this show, making it a delight to witness. In addition to the assassins, most actors also function as ensemble members, playing other characters in the stories, along with child actor Mario Esteb who is given the chilling final scene.

Dieter Bierbrauer as John Wilkes Booth
(photo by Dan Norman)
  • Dieter Bierbrauer is a longtime favorite of mine, so it's no surprise that he's my favorite in this cast. His performance as John Wilkes Booth, the original assassin, is everything it needs to be -  gloriously sinister, seductive, terrifying, charismatic. He completely commits himself to the evil of Booth, spouting his vile disgusting words with total conviction. Booth is the ringleader of this crazy circus, and Dieter fills that role in the show with a strong and commanding performance that pulls the story together.
  • As the Balladeer, Tyler Michaels seems the sweet and innocent bystander guiding us through the circus, often watching the show from the audience, until (spoiler alert) he becomes Lee Harvey Oswald. Then his performance turns into a nuanced exploration of a disturbed young man making one final horrible choice after a lifetime of them.
  • Matt Reihle is the Proprietor of this joint and rarely leaves the stage, sitting on the sidelines watching the stories play out, and also playing too many instruments to count in support of Jason Hansen's excellent four-piece onstage band.
  • As the Santa suit wearing Samuel Byck, who mails tapes of his rants to famous people like Leonard Bernstein before attempting to hijack a plane to kill Nixon, James Detmar is delightfully unhinged. Hilarious, yet with the darkness of desparation below the comedy.
  • The anarchist Leon Czolgosz, who successfully shoots President McKinley, is embodied by Rodolfo Nieto, creating a character as serious and sober as his glorious bass-baritone voice.
  • Evan Tyler Wilson portrays the Jodie Foster-obsessed John Hinckley as a nerdy outcast, beautifully singing what would be a sweet and lovely love song, if it weren't so stalkery.
  • His duet partner in this love song is Shinah Brashears, perfectly cast as the young follower of Charles Manson...
  • Who creates a bit of buddy comedy with the charming Sara Ochs as the clumsy Sara Jane Moore, as both women make bungled attempts on President Ford's life.
  • As the stomach pained Guiseppe Zangara who attempts to shoot FDR out of desperation, Eric Morris gives a captivating performance that's hard to look away from.
  • Benjamin Dutcher is quite charming as the happy assassin Charles Guiteau, the would-be ambassador to France who killed President Garfield (with the help of infection), and will make you smile even to his dark and shocking end.
Tyler Michaels as Lee Harvey Oswald in the final moments
(photo by Dan Norman)
Assassins is an intense 100 minutes of music-theater. The carnival theme makes it exceptionally fun, but the subject matter of gun violence, desperate people, our insatiable obsession with celebrity, and the never-ending circus of politics is deeply unsettling. Theater at its best makes us reflect on our world in new ways, as difficult and painful as that might be, and Assassins does that brilliantly. Starting with Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's crazy creative piece, brought to clear and terrifying life by Peter Rothstein and his excellent team and cast.

Assassins continues through March 18. Go for the wild and wacky carnival theme, stay for the biting social and political commentary.

Trigger warning: lots and lots of guns and violence on stage.

*Plot summary adapted from what I wrote about Renegade's production.