Contemporary Theater's dark, wickedly funny Assassins

Assassins (front to back) Brian Mulvey, Shannon Hartman, Patrick Saunders, Joshua Andrews, Jesse Dufault, Jon Dyson, Rae Mancini, and Dave Sackal. Photo by Seth Jacobson Photography.

It sounds like an impossible writing challenge: A play about America's presidential assassins, where the the grim reality is leavened with authentic, character-based humor. Oh, and make it a musical.

In hands less sure than Stephen Sondheim's, that could easily become a Springtime for Hitler.

But the haunted, grinning book by John Weidman tap-dances right up to the edge, and coupled with Sondheim's score evoking and subverting period popular music, Assassins performs a soul-searching autopsy of the American dream. Perhaps a bit too avant for audiences when it premiered in 1990, it has since gained recognition as an increasingly relevant parable of the preterite and the elect(ed).

The Contemporary Theater Company in Wakefield last weekend opened a production that runs through November 2, and it's a powerful, gutsy staging packed with authentic performances and rich vocals, delivered with a visceral intimacy that will leave audiences breathless.

Director Jimmy Calitri has leveraged every inch the Contemporary's 90-seat theater using a minimal, multi-leveled set with two video projectors providing backdrops. The action flows out through the audience, reinforcing the feeling of being inside the minds of the characters struggling with their personal demons (Once you see this production, you'll wonder why anyone would stage this with a proscenium). Calitri has coached superb performances from a high-octane cast who are all up to the challenges of both the complex roles and Sondheim's uncompromising lyrical twists and tempos.

The show opens with assassins from across history — outcasts, misfits, and the psychotic — lining up at a shooting gallery, welcomed and given their weapons with gusto by Proprietor Hannah Van Meter: "Step up and shoot a President," she sings. "You can get the prize with the big blue eyes."

The scene shifts to April, 1865, and the show's narrator, the Balladeer (played with amazing range and energy by Matthew Roality-Lindman), introduces us to the pioneering presidential killer in the "Ballad of Booth." The show is done with just piano accompaniment, and musical director Lila Kane does a fine job at wrangling the show's disparate styles from a solo instrument (if you're a familiar with the score, you won't believe it can be done without drums and the occasional banjo, but Kane delivers.)

Patrick Keefe brings the vain, deluded Booth to life, from the mournful rebel singing "the country is not what it was/where there's blood in the clover" to the penultimate moments of the show where he reappears in Lee Harvey Oswald's imagination whispering the slithery, silken siren call of eternal fame: "Lee, when you kill a president, it isn't murder. Murder is a tawdry little crime; it's born of greed, or lust, or liquor. Adulterers and shopkeepers get murdered. But when a president gets killed, when Julius Caesar got killed -- he was assassinated. And the man who did it..."

"Brutus," Oswald interrupts.

"Ah! You know his name," says Booth. "Brutus assassinated Caesar -- what? -- two thousand years ago? Here's a high school dropout with a dollar-twenty-five an hour job in Dallas, Texas, who knows who he was. And they say fame is fleeting..."

Patrick Saunders' Oswald is fractured, fragile, and deeply human. His transformation from desperate shipping clerk to presidential assassin happens before our eyes, as he struggles with the charming Booth (and the rest of the assassins who lurk, ghostlike, in the shadowed upper reaches of the Texas School Book Depository). The final, chilling sequence packs a devastating punch, and the company delivers it with palpable sadness and horror. You have been warned.

Between the bookends of Booth and Oswald, there are many fine performances. Joshua Anrdrews executes two sardonic monologues as Santa-dressed-protester Samuel Byck, who aimed to kill Richard Nixon with a hijacked DC-9. Jesse Dufault is a muted, pining John Hinckley who brings sad empathy to the guitar-strumming pop duet ("Unworthy of Your Love") with Squeaky Fromme. David Sackal offers a distant mirror of the Occupy movement in his stolid, working-class portrayal of Leon Czolgosz, fan of anarchist Emma Goldman and killer of William McKinley. Jon Dyson's turn as the dyspeptic Giuseppe Zangara is full of a brutal, fatalist humor: "Too cold for the stomach in Washington -- I go down to Miami kill Roosevelt." That number, "How I Saved Roosevelt," is a radio interview, John Philip Sousa march, dance number, and electrocution, featuring interpenetrating 'only Sondheim could do that' lyrical call-and-response, executed impeccably by the ensemble cast.

Brian Mulvey is a pitch-perfect larger-than-life Charles Guiteau, the imperturbable hero-in-his-own-mind who gunned down James Garfield when his request to be made Ambassador to France was rebuffed. He cakewalks to his execution in a head-spinning duet with the Balladeer ("The Ballad of Guiteau") that veers from spiritual to ragtime on the way to the gallows. (And you wondered why this only ran 73 performances in 1990...)

Two performances deserve special mention. Shannon Hartman is dazzling as Squeaky Fromme, the proto-Valley-speaking brain-fried acolyte of Charles Manson. And Rae Mancini totally owns Sarah Jane Mooore, the middle-aged, pantsuited middle-American housewife turned assassin; she has a powerful combination of unaffected reality and devastating comic timing that will leave you wondering: why did I just laugh at that? The scene between these two discovering their common history and shooting up a bucket of chicken is one of the best moments of theatre I've seen in a long while; funny, deeply weird, and subversively terrifying.

Assassins may not Sondheim's best-known show, but it is the one he feels is "closest to exactly what the book writer and I wanted," according to an interview on the original cast recording of Sondheim on Sondheim. "Every time I see it," he says, "I can't think of ways to improve it, and I can't say that about any other show."

This reviewer feels the same about the Contemporary Theater's performance. Very highly recommended.

Assassins, at the Contemporary Theater Company, 327 Main Street, Wakefield, RI October 11,12, 18, 19, 24, 26, 31, Nov. 1,2 at 7pm, Matinees Oct 20 and 27. Tickets $25/evenings, $18/matinees. Info at web site or (4101) 218-0282

Full disclosure: In addition to paying for my tickets — which I always do for shows I review — I also contributed to the Indiegogo crowd funding campaign for this show because I really, really wanted to see a live performance. So I paid even more for my tickets, with commensurately higher expectations.