Pay attention: TCR’s ‘Assassins’ is timely and terrifying


Theatre Cedar Rapids — through March 4

It’s no secret that I’m not a Sondheim fan. And while Assassins pushes the boundaries of his typical style with more edge and rawness than one gets from a production of Company or Into the Woods, it utterly lacks the kind of cohesive story you get in the only Sondheim musical I love, Sweeney Todd. Now I know I’m a fanatic for a storyline, and many a great musical has abandoned dramatic tension for a song here or there, and that this is to some extent par for the course in musical theater.

But this particular show — and I say show, not production, because I’m talking about the script right now — failed me utterly in the way of character, plot and music. There were a couple of songs that were sung really stinking well, but they felt like the point, rather than vehicles to express things the characters couldn’t express any other way. The kind of musical I enjoy uses the songs to get the story out, not the other way around.

Kami Zbanek Hill and David Scanlon in TCR’s ‘Assassins.’ — photo by Struttmann Photo

The production team did really well with what they had to work with. Daniel Kelchen’s set was economical and gorgeous, providing solid levels to work with that Leslie Charipar utilized to paint some truly haunting tableaux. Amanda Mayfield’s light design managed to be both eerie and boisterous; taking us seamlessly from space to space with very little in the way of set changes. Joni Sackett’s costumes were fitting and matched the sort of dilapidated-American-dream tone created by the bent and burnt husk of a metal flag that dominated the stage. Props by Mindy Fiala-Levin and sound by Ben Cyr served the script’s needs and never distracted from the realism (or surrealism) required for each scene. Under Ben Lauer’s technical direction, each transition and effect clicked into place without a hiccough.

I do feel, however, that the Grandon may have been a better venue for this piece. I’ll admit, the sheer size and oppressive vibe of that fantastic, monstrous representation of “freedom” would have been dampened by being scaled down. It would have lost some of the feeling of how a nation can crush an individual beneath itself, like a carnival strongman crushes whatever piece of rotting fruit the Ringmaster can afford to place before him.

But I feel like this show might have played better with the intimacy a black box space affords. It is almost a cabaret of human weakness and rage and impotence, each scene culminating in vicious act of violence that I can’t help but feel would hit harder if you could see the looks in their eyes as they each took their shot. A few times I came so close to feeling that desperation, but the sheer distance of the players on the stage and the swell of a full band overtaking the lyrics to the songs robbed me of its full effect.

(L-R) Ben Cyr, Erin Helm and Sage Spiker in Theatre Cedar Rapids’ production of ‘Assassins.’ — photo by Struttmann Photo

This is not to say that the show on the whole was ineffective, or overly dark. Some truly talented actors took on this material in ways that were nothing short of magnificent. Marcia Hughes was downright hilarious as Sarah Jane Moore, the accident-prone would-be-assassin of Gerald Ford. Sage Spiker was devastatingly sweet and sympathetic as Leon Czolgosz, even as he’s taking aim at William McKinley. John Zbanek Hill delivers two monologues to a tape recorder that are easily two of the best monologues I’ve ever heard delivered. Seriously: It’s fantastic work.

Aaron Murphy’s smile just before Charles Guiteau is executed is burned on my brain with every single hurt feeling, hysterical fear and yet unsatisfied rage it contained. And Daniel Kelchen is just as sinister, calculated and charming as the role of John Wilkes Booth demands. His rallying the others to murder, treason and mayhem is nothing short of mesmerizing.

Aaron Murphy in TCR’s ‘Assassins.’ — photo by Struttmann Photo

Attention must be paid. This line is repeated throughout the show and used as a tool for recruiting the last (if not chronologically latest) assassin in the play. Leslie Charipar calls it out in her director’s notes, writing, “When we stop paying attention, order — any degree of order — is disturbed, and chaos is allowed to sneak in.”

Now is such a time. Politics and the noise of it has risen to a cacophony. What it means to watch the American dream die is the subject of every fight I’ve had with friends and relatives for much of the last year. This show, in that climate, is timely and terrifying. Despite my personal issues with the script, the talent and passion and vision put together by this team are appropriately unnerving. This is not a feel good musical and not everyone will like it. But, Booth is right. And so, as usual, is Leslie Charipar. Attention must be paid.

Assassins runs at Theatre Cedar Rapids through March 4, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $24-33.

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