‘Assassins’ is a necessary story, strikingly performed

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Iowa City Community Theatre Presents: Assassins

Johnson County Fairgrounds — through Sept. 23

Dustin Davis and Kehry Anson Lane explore their dark sides in ‘Assassins’ at Iowa City Community Theatre. — photo by Lindy Rublaitus

This review should have been finished days ago. But Assassins isn’t a show you walk away from and just move on with your night. Stephen Sondheim (music, lyrics), John Weidman (book) and Charles Gilbert Jr. (concept) packed a lot of philosophy and self-awareness into their barely 100 minute-long, intermission-free, 1990 revue.

If you’re looking for something lighthearted and heartwarming to see this weekend, there’s a well-reviewed production of My Fair Lady running just 30 minutes north of the Johnson County Fairgrounds at Theatre Cedar Rapids. But if you like your musicals a little bit dark, a little bit thoughtful and a little bit acerbic, Jaret Morlan and his cast do a lovely job of bringing this weird, wonderful show about the assassins and would-be assassins of American presidents, from Lincoln to Reagan, to life.

When I saw the show on opening night, it suffered a bit from a few late sound cues, lighting that was not always on target and an actor or two that either wasn’t feeling well or had been cast outside their range. Sound balance between actors was often a challenge. But the engaging personalities on stage quickly overcame those hiccups. The set, designed by Jeffrey Allen Mead, who also turns in possibly a career-best performance as Samuel Byck, is evocative in all the right and wrong ways. That is to say, it’s discomfiting. Before the show even begins, you feel the weight of the prevailing question: Are we supposed to feel empathy for these characters?

Assassins presents an intriguing challenge for directors and casts in that its central conceit is about alienation, but its construction demands connection. Sondheim is a wizard at making an actor feel all alone while on stage surrounded by a dozen other players, and Morlan, with help from choreographer Payton Proud, guides his cast expertly through this dichotomy. There are moments of true intimacy juxtaposed with brutal estrangement, sometimes in the same scene, and the main actors put some serious work into playing off of each other as well as being necessarily aloof.

Much of the heavy lifting in the script is done by Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth, played here with authority and undeserved grace by Kehry Anson Lane. Booth is self-righteous and self-aware; he is both instigator and inspiration. Lane carries the weight of these delightfully, full of just enough charm to make us doubt our convictions. Colin Nies, as Leon Czolgosz, the Polish-American anarchist who assassinated McKinley, is the same: an ideologue rather than a madman, an anti-hero, almost (or even a hero to some). Both actors imbued their characters with an unsettling rationality; Nies, perhaps, was almost too likable.

Kehry Anson Lane as John Wilkes Booth in ‘Assassins’ at Iowa City Community Theatre. — photo by Lindy Rublaitus

And that’s what makes this show, especially this production, so unsettling. Early in the play, when Mead’s Byck announces that he’s going to attempt to kill Nixon, a woman in the opening night audience let out a cheer. It was like a punch to the gut. Who are we, in this equation? How would we feel if the president was assassinated? Does it matter which president? Can we empathize with these characters’ motivations without condoning their acts? Can they even be just characters to us, when they were real human beings, some of whom are still alive?

The ensemble attempts to address this, though it feels like Sondheim added much of it less as context and more to release tension. There are nods to the question of how the rest of America reacts to assassination — but it isn’t always pretty. It doesn’t really lift the weight. The ensemble in ICCT’s Assassins is excellent at teasing out that variety. It seemed like a large chorus; a smaller group could have handled the work (only a handful are on stage at a time), but there aren’t any that I’d want to lose — each actor is a lovely addition to the cast.

A stand-out in the ensemble was Rachael Rhoads, an actor I’ve been aware of but never had the chance to see perform before. Her Emma Goldman (a hero to Czolgosz and familiar in this area after the clinic named for her) was scene-stealing. Rhoads was as soft-spoken as some of the other actors, but her scenes didn’t suffer from the same lack of balance that plagued some of the others. Instead, the moment she opened her mouth, the audience went still. Rhoads’ clarion sincerity is the moral center of the production — a reminder that we can hold both conviction and humanity (Goldman’s own belief in “propaganda of the deed” notwithstanding) .

It’s a challenging time for this show to be produced. Booth’s convincing argument that these actual and would-be killers act out of a place of disconnection, out of a need to belong, is patently dangerous as we, as a community, actively navigate the conversation around toxic masculinity and the question of what drives men, in particular, to kill. “Attention must be paid,” Booth quotes, from Death of a Salesman — and the quote wields dual power.

First, it shakes us back to reality: Death of a Salesman is, in many ways, a play about toxic masculinity itself, after all. But second, it’s Sondheim’s not-so-subtle reminder, right at Booth’s most charming and plausible, that he is an actor. None of this real; none of this is sincere. Lane does a chilling job of concealing this menace just below the surface of his smooth and likable portrayal of Booth. Several of the others, too — particularly Olivia Symmonds as would-be Ford assassin Sara Jane Moore — deftly walk that line between welcoming and off-putting, reminding us that this exclusive club imagined for the play isn’t one that really cultivates a sense of belonging.

Ultimately, it isn’t the morality of the characters that Sondheim wants us to question in this show — it’s our own. It’s a show well worth seeing in a packed theater, with plenty of people to discuss it with afterward, and this production, in this community, does not disappoint.

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Who are you, in this equation?

Iowa City Community Theater’s Assassins runs just one more weekend, and it’s well worth your time; tickets are $11-19.

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