Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 30
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
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AMERICAN DREAMERS: Samuel Byck (Tom Bessellieu), out-of-work tire salesman who tried to assassinate Richard Nixon by hijacking a commercial airliner and crashing it into the White House, shares his angry view of the world in two memorable monologues, in Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s “Assassins,” playing at Kelsey Theatre on the campus of Mercer County Community College through August 2.

“Assassins” Presents Dark, Violent Side of the American Dream; Sondheim Musical Examines Nine Would-Be Presidential Killers

Donald Gilpin

John Weidman, librettist for Assassins, the 1991 Off-Broadway musical about nine angry misfits who wanted to assassinate American Presidents, described his characters as “peculiarly American …. We live in a country whose most cherished national myths encourage us to believe that in America our dreams not only can come true but should come true, and that if they don’t someone or something is to blame.”

In the intervening years since Weidman and Stephen Sondheim’s first presentation of this dark, disturbing strain of American history and psychopathology, an array of violent events — in schools, in churches, in the workplace and elsewhere — have made this piece, currently playing at Kelsey Theatre in an admirable cheng/ferrara production, a timely commentary on the ironies and dysfunctions of our society.

The characters, from John Wilkes Booth to Charles Guiteau to John Hinkley, developed in seventeen scenes interweaving detailed historical fact and theatrical fantasy, provide a fascinating array of passions and pathologies. They are often humorous in their bizarre delusions, always thought-provoking, sometimes disconcerting in their violent irrationalities.

The frequency and loudness of gunshots throughout the evening, in the context of the violence of this country’s recent history and its frustratingly unproductive ongoing debate over gun control, make this play particularly unsettling. The play’s content, along with some objectionable language, makes it inappropriate for children.

The emblematic opening scene powerfully foreshadows the entire evening, introducing the characters and establishing the discordant tone and themes of the show. It’s a carnival, complete with shooting gallery, targets, pennants flying, an American flag hanging above, and the proprietor (Andrew Young) ready to spin the large wheel of fortune bearing pictures of eight American Presidents, all targets of assassination attempts. The shadowy ambience, with appropriate musical accompaniment, is sinister and threatening.

Cheng/ferrara’s production of Stephen Sondheim and Jerome Weidman’s “Assassins” will play for one more weekend, July 31 and August 1 at 8 p.m. and August 2 at 2 p.m., at Kelsey Theatre on the campus of Mercer County Community College. Call (609) 570-3333 or visit for information.

Leon Czolgosz (Sean Downing), assassin of William McKinley, shuffles on, and the shooting gallery proprietor wastes no time in accosting him: “Hey pal — feelin’ blue? Don’t know what to do? C’mere and kill a President.” The other assassins gather and the proprietor readily distributes guns to John Hinkley (Paul Lasky) attempted assassin of Ronald Reagan; Charles Guiteau (John Zimmerman), assassin of James Garfield; Giuseppe Zangara (Jacob Porter), attempted killer of Franklin D. Roosevelt; Samuel Byck (Tom Besellieu), attempted assassin of Richard Nixon; Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Hilary Goldman) and Sara Jane Moore (Jennifer Devenio), attempted assassins of Gerald Ford; and finally John Wilkes Booth (Bill Kamps), assassin of Abraham Lincoln. (One additional killer does not appear until the surprising penultimate scene.) As the opening number ends, the strange assortment of bitter, vengeful malcontents moves towards the audience, waving and pointing their guns: “Everybody’s got the right to be happy. Everybody’s got the right to be different. Everybody’s got the right to their dreams.”

Under the able direction of Frank Ferrara, with musical direction and conducting of the eight-piece orchestra by Nicholas Cheng, these characters reveal themselves and their motives in a series of vignettes, sketches, ballads, and monologues. From 1865 to 1975, they appear in a range of mostly vague settings — often sites where assassinations took place or were planned — until the last scene in “limbo” as the assassins gather for their final reflections on their unhappy situations.

More detail in portraying the various settings would be helpful here. (The original production provided some reference points and information through projections on a screen.) Knowledge of American history is also helpful. The show is by nature disjointed, and keeping track of who’s who and exactly what’s going on can be problematic at times.

Mr. Cheng and Mr. Ferrara have assembled an excellent ensemble, cast wisely and rehearsed with care and intelligence. The pace moves rapidly. The staging is clear and effective. Significant vocal and dramatic skills are apparent throughout. The music, often dissonant in keeping with the mood of the evening, powerfully supports and unifies the action of the show. The orchestra is first-rate. The show delivers many interesting and imaginative moments and interactions in the odd lives of its characters.

Mr. Bessellieu’s Samuel Byck is an especially rich character portrayal, presented through two powerful, frightening, foul-mouthed and humorous monologues — one in which he is preparing a tape to send to Leonard Bernstein, another in which he is driving to the airport to commandeer a jetliner to crash into President Nixon’s White House.

Mr. Zimmerman’s Guiteau is also vibrant, and surprisingly upbeat in his delusional determination to be ambassador to France. As he dances his way up the steps to the gallows (“I am going to the Lordy!”), after shooting President Garfield, this strong-voiced, energetic Guiteau exudes charisma and a commanding stage presence.

As the historically earliest assassin of the group, Mr. Kamps’ Booth receives much deference from the others. He is frighteningly charming and convincing in his zealotry as he attempts to justify his murder and encourages the other assassins on their misguided missions.

Jennifer Devenio is effective in two striking roles: first as the eccentric would-be assassin of Gerald Ford, then as the strong-minded human rights crusader Emma Goldman in a touching exchange with the admiring Leon Czologosz. Mr. Downing’s Czologosz is credible and on target throughout the evening, as are Hilary Goldman’s Charles Manson-obsessed Squeaky Fromme and Mr. Lasky’s Jodie Foster-obsessed Hinkley. The two team up for a folk-rock love ballad “Unworthy of Your Love,” sung, not to each other, but to their unattainable love interests. Mr. Porter renders a focused, intense portrayal of the angry Italian nihilist Zangara, but his accent does cause several lapses in diction and audience comprehension.

Kyrus serves as a sort of narrator in modern dress, playing with smooth poise the role of Balladeer and providing an insightful bridge between audience and characters. Mr. Young supplies strong support as the proprietor and as a final unanticipated assassin.

The assassins’ troubling perspectives, the villains’ all-too-human point of view on these dark chapters of American history, are what ultimately characterize Sondheim and Weidman’s Assassins. This talented Kelsey Theatre company brings these strange characters to life through music and drama. You’re not likely to sympathize, but you’ll remember and perhaps come closer to understanding our strange country and some of its most bizarre citizens.

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