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A CurtainUp Berkshires Review
By Elyse Sommer
This has been a week where my theatrical diet featured a double dose of who but . . . would dare? The two theatrical dare devils I encountered where Tom Stoppard and Stephen Sondheim. Who but Stoppard would dare to mix Joyce, Lenin, the dadaist Tristan Tzara plus Cicely and Gwendolyn from Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest into one play. And who but Sondheim would dare to write a musical about a group of men and women whose sense of disenfranchment from the American experience caused them to point guns at eight American presidents?
Stoppard's Travesties is being given a dream production at the The Williamstown Theatre Festival (review). Alas, the same can't be said for the Berkshire Theatre Festival's take on Sondheim's Assassins.
Part of the problem rests with Sondheim and with his long-time collaborator John Weidman's book. In Sweeney Todd Sondheim brilliantly made an unpalatable subject palatable. The smaller scaled Assassins, despite emotionally and intellectually challenging numbers like the melodic but cynical "Gun Song" and the somber "Ballad of Guiteau", remains too close to painful events, for easy enjoyment and understanding of its ironic humor. The ultimate attempt to justify the motivations of the assassins is troubling and talk of crashing a plane into the White House is eerie and off-putting. That said, it follows that it takes mature performers to tap into Sondheim's sensibility, as well as an audience that knows how to really listen. That means not just reacting to the what seems funny on the surface, but keeping the laughter in check long enough to grasp what's beneath the humor.
There were few such astute listeners at the Unicorn's opening night performance. Half the audience consisted of BTF acting apprentices students whose constant rush to laughter was so distracting that I find it difficult to comment on the show. Instead of supporting their friends on stage, as they undoubtedly intended to do, their inappropriate behavior had the deleterious effect of underscoring the fact that the stage was not peopled by seasoned professionals. Whether the cast was up to the challenge of this show or not, the summer camp atmosphere created a "let's put on a show " amateur atmosphere.
Fortunately, anyone seeing Assassins during the rest of its run in Stockbridge will do so without the BTF apprentices' annoying raucousness which actually seemed to cause some of the actors to respond by coming close to hamming up the humor. With this in mind and my already voiced reservations about the musical itself, there is in this, as in any Sondheim work, enough realized ambition to make it a not to be ignored musical enterprise. As musicals go it's small, complete in one act and with just ten numbers. However, those ten songs re-envision a range of American musical styles, from ballads to folk songs to patriotic marches. The weaknesses of John Weidman's book are offset by his clever pairing of some of the assassins -- Lincoln's killer John Wilkes Booth with Kennedy shooter Lee Harvey Oswald and Lynnette" Squeaky" Frome with Sara Jane Moore whose common bond was that each tried to kill Gerald Ford.
Director Timothy Douglas makes good use of the intimate Unicorn's aisles and small balconies. Since the last Unicorn musical, The Who's Tommy accommodated at least as large a cast and a small band, it's hard to understand the director's decision to scale this show down to just a piano instead of using at least three musicians and the guitar-playing balladeer as the original Playwrights Horizon production did. As for his attempt to tone down the ending with a blow-up of the slain John Kennedy's son instead of a more gory image, it only serves to point up the director's and our own discomfort with the show's potential for appearing to explain away violence -- not to mention that picture's evocation of John-John's own premature death.
With the country embarked on the Persian-Gulf War the 1990 premiere production Assassins was deemed too politically incorrect to move to Broadway after its sold-out run of just 73 performances. Maybe that's why with the fallout from another war in that region unlikely to make this cynical musical more easily acceptable any time soon, plans have been announced to move forward come what may with a Broadway production. The Unicorn only needs to fill some hundred seats for three weeks and probably will even with assassins who carry guns but not actors equity cards. It remains to be seen whether even a more experienced and well-known cast can fill up a Broadway house for a longer period.
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