Such lyrics point immediately to political allegory, of which there is no shortage in “Assassins.” But the production is also run through with a thread of implicit social commentary that dominates the action.
Faced with a spare set painted a uniformly dull brown, where wooden boxes alternately become seats, altars, gallows steps and a trunk in a book depository holding a long, ominous paper bag, audience attention inevitably hones in on the small objects that take up the largest space in the theater: the guns.
Each assassin carries his or her weapon in a manner thought to befit the character’s state of mind. Guiteau — portrayed by the bearded, twinkle-eyed Mahoney as an eternal optimist who killed Garfield because “Someone up there” told him to do it — brandishes his gun with cheerful vigor.
Sara Jane Moore (Boston University graduate Elizabeth Rimar), who fired at Gerald Ford but maintained she never intended to kill him, treats her revolver with such casual disregard that she even points it at her own son.
But while the assassins approach their guns differently, audience response to the weapons’ appearances remained constant. A series of cringes and hands hastily clasped to ears rippled across the theater with every raised firearm.
This prepared defense against the sharp gunshot to come made clear that, even in the pre-delineated realm of drama, the threat of violence dramatically changes the tone of the conversation.
A similar wariness crept through the theater with every execution; Booth commits suicide, Guiteau is hanged and Zangara animates the electric chair with his last-minute protests. Thus, while the assassinations themselves are framed at a historical remove — the assassins shoot at black and white photos of the various presidents projected onto a screen — the events preceding and following each incident are vividly depicted and deliberately fleshed out in all their ambiguity.
The Company One cast, an ensemble of veterans and newcomers with varying levels of vocal or theatrical training, is admirably comfortable in this arena of uncertainty, where the audience does not always laugh at the pointed lyrical asides and where the occasional sigh escapes to convey dismay, as when the assassins rally around Lee Harvey Oswald (Jonathan Popp) while John F. Kennedy’s motorcade wends its way through the streets of Dallas.
Nimbly negotiating the balance between humor and drama, a delicate enterprise given the musical’s charged subject matter, the cast focuses on the strengths of the production — its topical relevance, comedic exchanges that play up the characters’ wacky personalities, the catchiness of Sondheim’s melodies — and is willing to simply lob the more challenging material into the stratosphere of audience consciousness. The discussion, it is implied, can take place afterward.
These discussions are bound to occur, for whatever else “Assassins” accomplishes, it does indeed get people to pay attention, with its surfeit of desperados bearing guns. And as Guiteau himself notes as he heads toward the gallows steps, in the “land of opportunity,” attention is often all that one can hope for.
“Look on the bright side … Get off your backside,” he sings, Mahoney throwing in a scene-stealing toe-touching dance for good measure. “This is your golden opportunity: You are the lightning and you’re news!”
“Assassins” runs through Aug. 9 at the BCA Plaza Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont Street, Boston. Tickets range from $15-$38. For show times and tickets, call 617-933-8600, visit www.bostontheatrescene.com, or purchase them in person at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, or the Boston University Theatre Box Office, 264 Huntington Avenue.
For more information, visit Company One’s Web site at www.companyone.org
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