"Assassins" hits its mark
Sometimes a play thinks it is bigger than it is; thinks it is scorching the earth with intense examination of controversial issues that face a society. In the last two decades, for example, we have been inundated with plays about AIDS, each one claiming, "This is the play that matters."
Then there are the other plays, smaller, that drag an audience into the world of passionate discussion without preaching or proselytizing.
That's "Assassins," which opened to an appreciative crowd at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater's Quadracci Powerhouse Friday night.
It may sound strange to call it a small play when it has great music, a cast of a couple dozen, a pit orchestra and a set that looks like the most elaborate backyard home-built jungle gym you ever saw. But in reality, it's not as strange as it sounds.
The idea behind this play is a small tree with many branches that all grow in the same direction. It is about one thing, and one thing only.
Guns, guns and more guns.
The premise of the play, which has music by Stephen Sondheim, is to take a look at eight people who have tried to assassinate a President of the United States. Some were successful, other weren't.
Somewhere in this play there are supposed to be reasons that drove these people to try these daring and dastardly acts. But once you strip away all the wrapping you are left with a candy bar with a full dose of crazy at the center.
All of these people, from John Wilkes Booth to John Hinkley, are crazy. And all of them want some kind of attention.
Once the audience figures out they might not bother caring about the killers or killers-to-be or wanna-be killers, then we are left with one thing to think about, and it's the world of guns.
The issue is nicely summed up by Leon Czolgosz, who shot and killed William McKinley in 1901.
It takes a lot of men to make a gun,
Hundreds, many men to make a gun.
Men in the mines to dig the iron,
Men in the mills to forge the steel.
Men at machines to turn the barrel
Mold the trigger, shape the wheel.
It takes a lot of men to make a gun, one gun.
And a group of the assassins then sing:
And all you have to do is move your little finger
Move your little finger and you can change the world.
Why should you be blue when you've got your little finger?
Prove how just a little finger can change the world.
The book for this play deals with some of the darkest of acts, but some are couched in a comedy that almost makes you feel a little bit guilty about laughing.
When the crazy Squeaky Fromme and Sara Jane Moore make us laugh as they haplessly plan to kill Gerald Ford, should we really think these two nutsos are funny? But funny they are. The work between Caroline O'Connor, who plays Moore with a coltish delight, and Sara Litzinger, who plays Fromme like a viper without fangs, is a highlight of the show. They can sing and act on a level that is the best this town can offer.
When Lee Ernst, one of Milwaukee's favorites, dresses in a dilapidated Santa suit and tapes a message to Leonard Bernstein explaining why he is planning to kill Richard Nixon, you don't know whether to laugh, scream or cry. Some people did a little of each.
The cast is uniformly outstanding and under the direction of Mark Clements, the artistic director of The Rep, they each take a turn in the spotlight, only to have the focus move on. Clements knows that nothing in life is forever and he won't let any one of the wackos monopolize our time or attention. We may remember them for a long time, Clements seems to be saying, but we don't have to really pay all that close of attention.
At the end, when the audience is getting ready to stand and applaud, Sondheim and Clements throw a bon mot our way. Something that we know applies not only to the assassins, but to each and every one of us.
The assassins all sing:
Everybody's got the right to be happy.
Say "enough" is not as tough as it seems
Don't be scared you won't prevail,
Everybody's free to fail
No one can be put in jail for his dreams.
"Assassins" runs through Oct. 7.
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