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Jane Enkin


by Jane Enkin,Jan 24, 2013


Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

Book by John Weidman

Directed by Adam Brazier

presented by Ontario companies Birdland Theatre and Talk Is Free Theatre

at the Tom Hendry Warehouse Theatre, Manitoba Theatre Centre

to February 2, 2013


Assassins is a brilliant production of a challenging show. With affecting portrayals of repellent characters, with realistic moments of passion alternating with music hall, vaudeville and carnival references, the play disturbs and intrigues the audience.


Many questions arise. Are “freedom” and “happiness” potentially misleading, even dangerous goals? How did these individuals become killers – are they outsiders, or inevitable products of their society? Is the same impulse that drove their violence behind the more recent shootings in Montreal, Colorado and Massachusetts? And would it help in any way to improve the control of access to guns?


Guns and gun control were on everyone's minds last night. I was lucky enough to attend the “talk back” session after the show. (These take place on the first Tuesday of each MTC run.) The actors pointed out that lines that drew laughter in earlier productions meet with hushed silence in 2013 (mind you, there is still plenty of “gallows humour” in this show.) An actor talked about American friends who praise Canada as a place so different from the US, but automatically reject any idea of getting rid of guns. “It's like taking fighting out of hockey,” he said.


The action of Assassins takes place in a kind of special hell for those who attempted or succeeded in the assassination of an American president. They range in era from John Wilkes Booth, who killed Lincoln, to John Hinckley, who took a shot at Ronald Reagan ( a helpful and witty guide to the assassins in the program provides essential details.) But this central meeting place is timeless –the characters wander in and out of each others' thoughts. Each one gets a scene about their own pivotal moments. For most of the play, there is a clear separation between the song and dance numbers that happen in the “no time” context, and the more realistic scenes from the lives of each individual. The play comes to a more surrealistic close when the actor who plays the folksy “Balladeer”,who has commented on the action throughout the play, is transformed on stage into yet another potential assassin and is tempted, cajoled and convinced by all the other characters to carry out his deed.


This is a fabulous ensemble piece. In the talk back session, one actor pointed out that since they are all on stage the whole time, they become a “weird creepy team”, feeding the play the whole time. This engagement throughout the play is palpable and disturbing. The actors play their central characters, take on other small roles, and join in ominous lock-step choreography.


As Booth, Shane Carty really stood out. He has a gorgeous voice, handling with aplomb the deep notes in the score. His character describes the greatest range of motivations for killing a president, in a long, varied song, and he carried me with him the whole way – with emotions including intense anger, testy impatience, heart-felt nostalgia for his country the way he remembered it before the Civil War, and arrogant pride. For the rest of the play, he was frightening as a kind of yetzer hara for the would-be killers who follow him, tempting them to solve their problems with a gun.


As Leon Czolgosz, Alex Fiddes was a romantic, tender, gentle presence on stage, showing his love for Whitney Ross-Barris' clear-eyed Emma Goldman, and his passion for the common man.


Melody A. Johnson played Sara Jane Moore as a quirky, androgynous-looking, ditzy comedy character, a foil for the intense, fiery Squeaky Fromme played by Janet Porter. (Both women took aim at Gerald Ford.) They share a great scene as they teach themselves to shoot, feeling more and more strength and then collapsing into fits of girlish giggles. As Moore, Johnson sang comically off-key, which it made it all the more chilling when she contributed powerfully to ensemble songs.


The adorable, pompous Charles Guiteau, played by Steve Ross, gets the show-stopping entertainment number of the play. I was delighted to read in the program that Guiteau truly did dance to the gallows, pausing to read his poem I Am Going to the Lordy, which Sondheim uses as inspiration for a gospel-vaudville number.


Although some of Sondheim's music is challenging for listeners used to conventional musicals, in Assassins he draws heavily on Americana genres, with lots of hummable music – gospel, bright“come on get happy” tunes, carnival music and parades. As an eerily low-key John Hinckley, Christopher Stanton sings a simple love ballad – if he had made it up for a real girlfriend rather than a celebrity he stalked, it would sound totally normal.


Assassins draws heavily on the work of Bertolt Brecht, including his musical works with composer Kurt Weill, alternating emotionally powerful character scenes with “alienating” commentary that makes us stand at a distance and confront what we are witnessing. Some of the most chilling moments come when the ensemble dances and sings together, celebrating their guns. The character called the Balladeer approaches the assassins in many ways, taunting them, revealing more about their motivations, rejecting their solution to problems, trying to show them hope.


Geoffrey Tyler's performance in his double role is especially effective. As the Balladeer, his costume and his performance evoke Woody Guthrie. He's sometime sardonic, other times sincere, his singing light and warm, always relaxed and detached. At the end of the play, stripped down to jeans and white T-shirt, Tyler transforms himself with entirely different body language into a broken, confused man in despair.


Despair, loss and a sense that something is owed them is common to all the assassins. In the talk back session, the actors commented on the dangers inherent in the innocent sounding idea of the right to “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”, when some individuals feel betrayed if hard work doesn't get them exactly the happiness they want.


When I'm writing for the Jewish community, I usually ask myself if the work at hand has particular relevance to us. Here is a response from American Rabbi Mike Rothbaum:


“Critics have regularly condemned Sondheim’s shows for being “acerbic”and “uncomforting,” his melodies "unhummable," his characters "unlikable."


“Maybe it’s those five-odd years of rabbinical school, but such“criticism” makes me think of Torah. Anyone who’s cracked the spine of a chumash knows that it’s not all sunbeams and pinwheels. While the sacred texts of some religious traditions showcase infallible heroes possessed only of exemplary traits, our Torah offers no such comfort. Our ancestors lie, cheat and steal –sometimes all in one chapter. We could easily find Sarah’s behavior toward Hagar “acerbic,” the young Jacob “unlikable,” the knife-wielding Abraham “uncomforting.” I think they’d all find a nice home in a Sondheim musical.


“From what I can tell, Stephen Sondheim isn’t particularly “religious,”at least in the traditional sense of the word. But I think a Jewish sensibility pervades his unflinching exploration of the corrosive materialism, rootlessness, and alienation of modern secular culture.


“...You can almost see Sondheim in company with Abraham, back in that idol shop, smashing all the statues. To be a Jew has always meant smashing idols, to challenge hypocrisy and apathy, mindless conformity and unexamined belief – even if, sometimes, it makes people uncomfortable.


SONDHEIMFEST continues through February 3


It features plays by Sondheim, including classics such as Folliesand Into the Woods, and original works by local playwrights.


As a taste, here's the teaser for Stephen Sondheim's Excellent Adventure:


Legend has it that before he was this year’s master playwright a young Steven Sondheim was mentored by musical theatre Jedi-master Oscar Hammerstein II. Oscar gave the young Steve a series of four exercises which, if completed successfully, would make him a master of his craft. These tasks were to write four musicals: One based on a play he loved, one based on a play he thought was flawed, one based on a story never before dramatized and, finally, a completely original work.


Now, four stalwart and noble Manitoba theatre companies are banding together to take on Oscar Hammerstein’s august schoolings in the hopes of collectively achieving a passing grade. Whether or not they live to tell the tale is up to the will of the gods, the journey, however, is sure to be the most delicious theatrical experience since Sweeny Todd got into the pie making business.


For information about all SONDHEIMFEST events, go to


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