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Extravagant, sardonic Assassins at Theatre Three

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What a curious phenomenon is Stephen Sondheim (Music and Lyrics) and John Weidman’s (Book) musical comedy : Assassins. Satirical and amusing, sympathetic yet rigorously frank, it chronicles the history of roughly ten individuals who, successfully or not, attempted to murder American Presidents. Beginning with John Wilkes Booth (who becomes the leader) and culminating with Lee Harvey Oswald in the second act, each is permitted to tell their story, often occupying the stage as a chorus line (if you will) pointing guns at the audience. I won’t say gun control is exactly one of the issues raised here, but the ease, facility and empowerment of acquiring a gun is considered strongly; the distance between fantasy and actualization, a mere finger tug away.

I was intrigued by how quickly the audience fell under Sondheim’s spell, a composer and lyricist who never lacked for brio and audacity. Needless to say, when you attend a show called “Assassins” and the first thing you see is a decrepit carnival setting, festooned with garish bulbs urging us to “Shoot to Win,” they’re not going for a delicate touch. Booth is frothy and charismatic, Manson disciple Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme is used for comic relief, Samuel Byck in his Santa-from-hell costume is sad, funny and creepy, all at the same time. And yet, tone here is crucial. While certain aspects of the script are astonishing in their excess, the net effect doesn’t feel ham-fisted or operatic.

Sondheim and Weidman’s treatment is soaked in irony, and they clearly believe each culprit was a fringe dweller before they made the decision to kill a president. That being said, they don’t try to trivialize the pain of this band of misfits or suggest that they are somehow, essentially inferior to the rest of the human race. Like so many deeply, emotionally troubled individuals, they take the hostility and apathy of American society too much to heart.

In the second act we find ourselves in the Dallas School Book Depository with Lee Harvey Oswald. Oswald is despondent. His life is falling apart. He has brought a pistol with him to work, to commit suicide, on (as it happens) the same day Kennedy’s motorcade will be driving through Dealey Plaza. Just as he is about to take his own life, Booth appears, determined to convince him how much better it would be to assassinate Kennedy; validating Oswald’s existence and assuring him a place in history. The other assassins implore him to listen, by fulfilling his destiny, their lives too, will be imbued with meaning. Oswald is resistant at first, but the more he considers the possibility that he will be acknowledged (notorious and remembered in perpetuity) the harder it is for him to shake off temptation. It is important to note here, that Kennedy’s death is depicted as far more devastating than the others. The classic “Where were you when you heard…?” question is raised in the song : “Something Just Broke.”

There’s a grim subtext, naturally, to the insouciant mien of Assassins : profound disappointment with the American promise of Freedom, Opportunity, Validation, Justice. But it never seems preachy or maudlin or (as you might expect) over the top. All the perpetrators feel robbed of their share of importance, value and appreciation. Assassins is less about finger pointing than a sense of there but for the grace of God.…We are invited to laugh about their ironic situations and foibles, but Sondheim and Weidman never mock these lonely souls, incited by a sense of helplessness. Not really. Just like in Sweeney Todd, Sondheim has demonstrated his gift for helping us to comprehend (perhaps even understand?) villainy without excusing it.

Theatre Three presents Assassins, playing September 26th-October 27th, 2013. . 2800 Routh Street, The Quadrangle, Suite 168, Dallas, Texas 75201. 214-871-3300.