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Assassins ~ Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
August 24, 2019
Special to The Alexandria Times

Evan Casey (John Hinckley), Ian McEuen (Giuseppe Zangara), Christopher Bloch (Sam Byck), Lawrence Redmond (Leon Czolgosz), Vincent Kempski (John Wilkes Booth), Bobby Smith (Charles Guiteau), Rachel Zampelli (Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme), and Tracy Lynn Olivera (Sara Jane Moore) in Assassins at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer opens the season with Assassins, Signature’s 30th production of a Stephen Sondheim musical with book by John Weidman who wrote for National Lampoon (that should give you a clue as to what to expect in terms of irony) and later for Sesame Street.  The story is a deep dive into the mind of an assassin, though it’s far from grim.  In fact, it’s as comedic as it is concerning, and Schaeffer, who also directs the production, has assembled some of the most notable local performers to star in this intriguing piece.

What kind of a person becomes an assassin?  I say ‘person’ because American assassins have been both male and female.  Some claim religion or revenge as motive.  Are they sociopaths or garden variety kooks, narcissistic psychotics or just temporarily gone off the rails?  Some feel isolated – shut out of the American Dream of prosperity or fame – but all their stories are different, and it’s worth noting that their sociological backgrounds, whether they sprang from wealth or poverty, don’t necessarily give rise to their murderous desires.  In fact, not all assassins have political motives.  It’s a fascinating conundrum.  Remember Hinckley’s twisted infatuation with actress Jodie Foster?

Evan Casey (John Hinckley) and Rachel Zampelli (Lynette Squeaky Fromme) in Assassins at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

We are introduced to these seven madmen and two madwomen – nine would-be and successful presidential assassins who used a gun to carry out their acts – in a carnival-like atmosphere.  “Shoot the President.  Win a prize.” is the theme.  One by one we meet Booth, Charles Guiteau (shot Garfield), Giuseppe Zangara (shot FDR), Samuel Byck (attempt on Nixon, but first to try to hijack and blow up a plane), Leon Czolgosz (shot McKinley), Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (attempt on Gerald Ford), Sara Jane Moore (attempt on Gerald Ford), Lee Harvey Oswald (shot John F. Kennedy), and Hinckley (shot Reagan).

Sam Ludwig (Lee Harvey Oswald) in Assassins at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

For John Wilkes Booth, it was for the glory and notoriety.  It’s been suggested the failed actor was depressed about recent bad reviews.  After all he used Ford’s Theatre, where he himself had once performed, to shoot Lincoln.

Vincent Kempski (John Wilkes Booth) in Assassins at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Sondheim applies irony and wry, dark humor to the music to broaden the appeal and deepen the construct.  There is passion and even empathy, especially of the broader social issues that drove Oswald the loner and loser, and Czolgosz, the disillusioned Pole who fell in love with social activist Emma Goldman.  And who couldn’t love a song entitled, “Everybody’s Got the Right”?

Tracy Lynn Olivera (Sara Jane Moore), Lawrence Redmond (Leon Czolgosz), Ian McEuen (Giuseppe Zangara), Christopher Bloch (Sam Byck), Sam Ludwig (Balladeer), Kurt Boehm (The Proprietor), Rachel Zampelli (Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme), Evan Casey (John Hinckley), Vincent Kempski (John Wilkes Booth), and Bobby Smith (Charles Guiteau) in Assassins at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Particularly hilarious are imagined meetings between Manson follower, Fromme (Rachel Zampelli, captivating as a hippie princess druggie), and ex-CIA employee and suburban mom, Moore (Tracy Lynn Olivera in a superbly crafted performance), as the two women bond over their guns while shooting up a bucket of KFC as target practice.

Rachel Zampelli (Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme) and Tracy Lynn Olivera (Sara Jane Moore) in Assassins at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman

Another exceptional performance is by Christopher Bloch as Byck, a get-off-my-lawn, ex-U. S. soldier and would-be assassin. Bloch is extraordinary in two scene-length monologues.  Clad in a Santa suit, Byck rants his delusional screed into a tape recorder to mail to Leonard Bernstein and later Richard Nixon.

Christopher Bloch (Sam Byck) in Assassins at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margo Schulman.

An all-around incredibly powerful cast who inhabit the characters like a second skin.  Riveting and relevant with a ravishing score.

Highly recommended.

With Lawrence Redmond as Leon Czolgosz, Evan Casey as John Hinckley, Bobby Smith as Charles Guiteau, Ian McEuen as Giuseppe Zangara, Vincent Kempski as John Wilkes Booth, Kurt Boehm as Proprietor, Sam Ludwig as Balladeer, Christopher Mueller as David Herold, Sam Ludwig as Lee Harvey Oswald, Jimmy Mavrikes as President Gerald Ford, Jack St. Pierre as Billy, Christopher Michael Richardson as James Blaine and Maria Rizzo as Emma Goldman.  Nova Y. Payton appears in the ensemble.

Scenic Design by James Kronzer, Costume Design by Kathleen Geldard, Lighting Design by Chris Lee, Sound design by Ryan Hickey, Concept by Charles Gilbert, Jr.

Through September 29th at Signature Theatre (Shirlington Village), 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206.  For tickets and information call 703 820-9771 or visit www.signature-theatre.org.

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