Monday, August 20, 2012

Coeurage Theatre Company’s ASSASSINS Hits its Mark

Mark Jacobson, Gary Lamb, Aimee Karlin, Jesse Bradley, Jonas Barranca,
and Jason Peter Kennedy. Photos by Kevin McShane

When the house opens, the first image you see of Coeurage Theatre Company’s Assassins is an open stage minimally dressed as a red, white and blue carnival and a lone woman in black (Aimee Karlin as the Proprieter) on the balcony, polishing a gun. From her vantage point above the crowd she observes audience members as they enter, glancing periodically over the stage as something catches her eye. Though her face is expressionless, her eyes are cold, alert, suspicious, even a little irritated. It’s a chilling introduction into the world of Assassins and leaves one more than a little unsettled. Throwing you off balance is exactly the point.

Assassins is Stephen Sondheim (music & lyrics) and John Weidman’s (book) musical exploration into the minds of 9 men and women who assassinated, or attempted to assassinate, a U.S. President. Some were successful, like John Wilkes Booth who shot Abraham Lincoln, Charles Guiteau, who assassinated James Garfield, Leon Czolgosz, who killed William McKinley, and Lee Harvey Oswald, who assassinated JFK. Others, though unsuccessful, were no less notorious. Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Sarah Jane Moore each tried to shoot Gerald Ford, Giuseppe Zangara tried to kill FDR, Samuel Byck targeted Richard Nixon, and John Hinckley attempted to kill Ronald Reagan. 

As each sequence fades into the next, motives are uncovered. Justifications for their horrific behavior are offered up in a way that takes the very ideal of the American dream and assassinates it right in front of our eyes too. A lyric like “Everybody's got the right to be happy. Don't stay mad, life's not as bad as it seems. If you keep your goal in sight, you can climb to any height. Everybody's got the right to their dreams,” takes on new meaning when sung by a killer whose unfulfilled idealistic dream warps it into a kind of anti-dream.

What Sondheim and Weidman do so ingeniously with Assassins is not only give us characters not typically found in musical comedy, they create fascinating interactions between them - out of historical context but full of dramatic complexity. Guiteau, Zangara, Czolgosz, and Hinckley explosively cross paths in a bar. Fromme taunts Hinckley when she discovers his photograph of Jodie Foster, and Booth convinces Oswald that killing JFK will give them all the notoriety they deserve. 

The Balladeer (sweet voiced and charming "everyman" Jeremy Lelliott) acting as narrator, weaves their stories together beginning with Booth. An emotionally-charged Ryan Wagner is insistent that he shot Lincoln for the good of the country. He pleads with the Balladeer to tell the world his story but finds he has no control over what the public will hear. Travis Dixon (at the performance reviewed) enthusiastically gives Guiteau the slick sensibility of a glad-handing politician who is determined to become Ambassador to France, albeit minus the finesse that would come with more stage time. Political activist Emma Goldman is convincingly portrayed by Sammi Smith and her scene with Czolgosz (Jonas Barranca) is one of the most touching interactions of the night. Barranca’s characterization of the Polish immigrant is a revelation and so well-crafted that he is by far the stand-out of the excellent cast.

Nicole Monet and Kim Reed (as Fromme and Moore) meet and discover their mutual connection to Charlie Manson over Kentucky Fried Chicken and some comic “girls with guns” bonding in the park. Monet’s deadpan delivery is hilarious. Jason Peter Kennedy sings beautifully and passionately as Zanagara. He misses President-elect FDR but kills Chicago Mayor Anton Chermak and is sentenced to death. The scene contrasts the humor and the horror of the situation as Zangara is arrested, sentenced, and strapped into the electric chair while each of the eye witnesses gives their account of the shooting in "How I Saved Roosevelt." The comical execution of the Sousa-esque march may be over the top but when Zangara fries it is downright eerie. 

Jesse Bradley (Hinckley) also has a lovely voice, though the majority of his beautiful ballad “Unworthy of Your Love” is sung to the floor…an odd directorial choice that undermines the effectiveness of the song. Gary Lamb plays Byck for more laughs than I’ve seen in the past as do the dustbowl carnies of the ensemble.

Director Julianne Donelle is quite creative with her staging and overall does a very effective job of keeping the show moving, but choices like these, as well as the ragged endings of some of the scenes and several out-of-sync musical moments between actors and accompaniment, could be re-examined. Musical director Gregory Nabours has arranged Sondheim’s score to give the production the sound of an early twentieth century traveling show while cycling through a wide range of song styles that reflect the changing time periods.

By the time the indelible images of JFK’s assassination are reflected on the back wall and Lelliott as Oswald takes his place in the line-up of killers, our perception of the American dream has been forever altered. A door has been opened that can never be closed and the uneasiness of what’s to come looms like an unseen apparition above the assassins as they raise their guns in a final disturbing pose.

Coeurage Theatre Company’s production of Assassins is dark, funny, and often unsettling, but it hits its mark in surreal solidarity by meeting the demands of the provocative material head-on. 

Kim Reed, Nick Rocz, Jason Peter Kennedy, Nicole Monet, Jeremy Lelliott, 
Ryan Wagner, Jonas Barranca, Jesse Bradley, and Gary Lamb

Assassins: Courage Theatre Company, Actors Circle Theatre, 7313 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood, through September 9th. Tickets are pay-what-you-want. For reservations and more information visit

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