"Intimate Reality"​

Compact Assassins by Shotgun Players
still had thrills


Spring, 2013

In Look, I Made A Hat, the second volume of his collected lyrics, Stephen Sondheim describes Assassins as "a book musical masquerading as a revue." After admitting to a few small reservations, Sondheim says that in his view "the show is perfect." Perfection may not have been the level achieved by Berkeley, California's appropriately named small professional theater, The Shotgun Players, but this October's production certainly could lay claim to solid professionalism in all departments and a number of standout performances by members of both the cast and the design team.

Director Susannah Martin dispensed with the ensemble by having all the cast members who portrayed successful or would be assassins also play bystanders, photographers, housewives, farmers, factory hands, teachers and – of course – the balladeer.

In the small, 100-seat Ashby Stage, the cast didn't seem at all reduced. In fact, the ten actors and the eight-member on-stage band filled the available space quite satisfyingly. This was partially a tribute to Nina Ball's efficient set design which elevated the proprietor's shooting gallery a few steps, creating a number of separate playing spaces. Credit also goes to Martin herself for an active blocking that added momentum to the performance.

The sense of intimate reality was helped by the sonic design of Theodore J.H. Hulsker, who with director Martin, devised a soundscape that gave each scene its own feeling of inhabiting a very real world, from burning barn to city sidewalk. Martin and Hulsker added a great many sound effects to the cues specified in the script in order to build that sense of sonic density, and then, for the song "Something Just Broke," they pre-recorded the first third of the lyrics in order to have them delivered in a semi-surround-sound manner that enveloped the audience in the the collective memory of the moment each individual learned of the assassination of a President. 

While not all of the cast members brought musical skills of note to the show, all delivered performances infused with a sense of energy and commitment that carried the audience along for what is always a bizarre journey requiring the suspension of disbelief that is so necessary for any fantasy, no matter how dark and no matter how much actual historical fact is included.  

Jeff Garrett made the proprietor a bizarre character for the opening as he equipped each assassin with the gun that would be their weapon of choice. The last of the assassins to make an entrance in the opening is John Wilkes Booth, and Galen Murphy-Hoffman captured both Booth's personal persona as something of a dandy and his intelligence which, at plays end, allows him to argue so persuasively that Lee Harvey Oswald should take the action that would convert the family of misfits into a force of history. 

Steven Hess took Sondheim's lyric for his character, President Garfield's assassin Charles J. Giteau, as the lynchpin of his portrayal. "Charlie Guiteau / Never said 'never' / Or heard the word 'no' / Faced with disaster / His heart would beat faster / His smile would just grow." That indomitable sense of optimism permeated every expression and movement of his, even when singing "The Ballad of Giteau," a song that includes Guiteau's own poem "I Am Going To The Lordy (I Am So Glad)".

But Hess also managed to bring some enthusiastic optimism to each of the other roles he doubled as a member of the ensemble without making it seem as if Guiteau was playing a bystander or a witness. This was no mean trick in a production this intimate. 

In the non-singing role of Sam Byck who intended to assassinate President Nixon by crashing an airplane into the White House, Ryan Drummond succeeded in delivering the two monologues in John Weidman's script with such intensity and dramatic logic that they became the prose equivalent of soliloquy songs. Not all actors can pull this off, but Drummond's rendition of the heightened rationality of the insane carried the dramatic arc of the show forward with moments equal in dramatic weight to the sung stories of the more "successful" assassins.

Shotgun Players’ performance may not have been perfection itself, but it gave every indication that the play may deserve Mr. Sondheim’s claims for it. [TSR]