Lights rise on a set that merges reality and illusion with a lucid mystery that can only be seen, and believed, in the theatre. Surely this is some patriotic carnival of souls; a purgatory where discarded popcorn bags and American flags, dismembered baby dolls and discolored painted horses, try to see their sin through a dusting of rusty blood. A wooden combination factory-merry-go-round-prison looms at the rear of the stage, drunk driving around the actors and scenery. Huge portraits – the 6 American presidents on whom assassinations were attempted – stack into a checkered tower, topped by the signs Hit and Fail, which light and buzz and ding like a slot machine.
It is the pay-what-you-can* performance of Milwaukee Repertory Theatre’s** production of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins. At 82, Sondheim is still a boy wonder. His old shows open like new shows, because they’re usually better than anything new. Yes, they are musicals, but even though the music is hosting the party, Sondheim refuses to let it dominate the conversation. There are characters, and ideas, and critique, all of whom must be heard, sometimes simultaneously.
“Come on and shoot a president!” Barks the barker in his red and white striped coat, slithering from a booth in the corner. As if entering a musical Twilight Zone,*** the assassins dispense with time, space and other meddling realities, coexisting and co-creating each other’s destinies. From a window facing the grassy knoll, they gather around Lee Harvey Oswald as a cloud of witnesses; prophets of the false god of self, shedding blood so that their culture will endure.
John Wilkes Booth casts Brutus as a role model, whom Oswald immediately remembers. “[He] assassinated Caesar what, 2,000 years ago?” Booth marvels, “and here’s a high school dropout with a dollar twenty-five an hour job from Dallas, Texas who knows who he was. And they say fame – is fleeting?”
With the assassinations finished, the procession begins. “Everybody’s got the right to be happy…” they chant musically to one another, to the audience, coaxing a collective hypnosis. Guns drawn, they aim at us. Eyes open, we look back at them. “…everybody’s got the right to their dreams.” The stage lights go off. The house lights come on.
Backstage, the actors congratulate one another for getting a standing ovation at the first dress rehearsal. In the back of the house, the director presses next to a light board operator, proving his power. As we walk out of the theater, my friend and I discuss the musical we’re writing, sculpting our visions out of the night air.
*I paid in lint and used chap stick. No, I paid the suggested donation, a phrase which is almost Nietzschean in its manipulation. “We suggest this donation for the common man, because he needs structure. But you’re above all that, aren’t you? You’re super. You can give more than the suggested donation. Come on, Superman.” But I was not a mark for this philosophical con. I paid the suggested donation, no more, no less. Unless that was the con. Dammit, this is worse than David Mamet.
**Prior to the performance, Artistic Director and Briton Mark Clements strolled onstage with an authority unique to Milwaukee, where the British are still believed to be more cultured than Americans. After nodding with approval at the awed applause, he dismissed it with a gesture and we were silent. He then provided this introductory speech:
“Right. So, since I came here, we’re constantly trying to push the limits, uh, push the envelope, and this is the most technically complicated show we’ve ever done in the history of this theatre. We had 3 weeks of rehearsal with the actors, a week of tech, and, uh, this is our first dress rehearsal. Actually, um, we’ve never gotten through the whole show before. So we might have stop at some point. If we do, you’ll know. I mean, we’ll turn on the house lights and you can talk amongst yourselves. But when the house lights go off, I’d ask that you stop talking and we’ll start again. But our people have been putting 80 hour weeks in on this, so. Right. Enjoy. Cheers.”
***The Twilight Zone episode “Back There” is about a man who time-travels to the day Abraham Lincoln was shot and meets John Wilkes Booth. It’s worth seeing for the performance of John Lasell, who distills Booth’s political and theatrical ambition into something mesmerizingly convincing.