More hits than misses

Within the first five minutes of Point Park University’s presentation of the musical Assassins, the audience is staring down the barrel of a gun. Then two. Then eight. The men and women behind the firearms are some of the most notorious, misunderstood, and loathsome figures in American history; they are the assassins of U.S. presidents, from John Wilkes Booth (Matthew Benedict), who shot Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre, to John Hinckley (Sam Doblick), the lesser-known introvert who tried to assassinate Ronald Reagan to impress actress Jodie Foster. Presented by the university’s Conservatory Theatre Company, the show is a darkly comedic, insightful, and sometimes poignant look at some of the country’s most haunting moments.

Assassins opened off-Broadway in New York in 1990, with a book by John Weidman and music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim (West Side Story). Perhaps more dark than comedic, the show received only passing critical attention and was quickly forgotten by audiences. Assassins then moved to London, where Sondheim added the song “Something Just Broke” to the script. The addition served to balance the play, as it captured the American reaction to the death of a president. After succeeding in London, Assassins was set for a Broadway revival in 2001, which was later delayed to 2004 following 9/11.

The plot of Assassins is at once intriguing and disorienting, as the assassinations are not depicted in chronological order. The set design is appropriately sparse, as the timeframe zooms back and forth between 1865 (Lincoln) and 1981 (Reagan). Surrounding a mostly blank stage, rows of lights flank the left, right, and top of the stage, with the words “HIT” and “MISS” also spelled out in lights. Characters shoot at enlarged presidential buttons temporary lowered from above, and the words “HIT” or “MISS” light up accordingly. Although it serves to alleviate some tension, the effect is also eerie, channeling a deserted fairground.

As the show shuffles the eight historical figures throughout history, the script highlights their similarities and differences. Hinckley and Lynette Fromme (Caroline Kaiser) are both driven to murder to impress their loves; Fromme, who attempted to assassinate Gerald Ford, loves convicted murderer Charles Manson. Doblick and Kaiser illustrate their characters’ connection in the artfully performed duet “Unworthy of Your Love.” Alternatively, Giuseppe Zangara (Zach Block), who attempted to assassinate Franklin D. Roosevelt, didn’t seem to care whom he killed; driven mad by an unresolved pain in his abdomen, Zangara took out his frustration on the country to which he had immigrated.

Point Park’s acting was stellar. Kaiser was one highlight, portraying the whimsically mad Fromme with comical grace. Quinn Shannon was also impressive as Samuel Byck, a long-winded, unemployed tire salesman who tried to fly a plane into the White House to assassinate Richard Nixon; Shannon executed his role with perfect timing and believable desperation. Jordan Grubb shined as Leon Czolgosz, a disgruntled immigrant who assassinated William McKinley, and Kevin James Doyle pulled off James Garfield assassin Charles Guiteau’s hilariously over-the-top optimism to the delight of many an audience member. Finally, Justin Peebles skillfully transitioned from one lead role (the Balladeer, a sort of benign narrator) to another (Lee Harvey Oswald, who assassinated John F. Kennedy) with admirable skill.

It becomes clear why the play is not presented in chronological order when the story moves to Oswald, who emerges as a surprise ninth assassin — a historical character intriguingly absent from the show’s first half. On the stage, the eight other assassins (whose stories have already been told) visit a suicidal Oswald and convince him to murder Kennedy. The act, the characters insist, will ensure Oswald’s place in history, while also uniting the other eight as significant historical figures; as an example, Booth points out that people still remember Brutus, who assassinated Caesar in 44 BCE. Oswald is eventually convinced, and he shoots the lowered Kennedy button in the play’s dramatic climax. The word “HIT” does not illuminate; instead, black-and-white footage of the actual assassination is projected in Oswald’s open window, where the real-life Oswald took his shot.

The feeling in the audience is decidedly somber, and Assassins’ jokes and upbeat songs slip into the background as the play’s subject matter seems, for the first time, as disturbing as it really is. The moment should be especially enlightening for college-aged audience members, born decades after the Kennedy assassination.

In a time when some colleges are banning theatrical guns in campus shows, it is refreshing to see a musical dare to confront such a violent and historically significant subject as presidential assassinations. Assassins is skillfully and respectfully performed, depicting over a century of presidential attacks and the men and women behind them.