Almost 15 years after its chilly New York debut, Stephen Sondheim's Assassins still shocks. A plotless examination of nine real Americans who brought hell to their chiefs, it's not your standard Olathe material. Socialists have their say while presidents such as McKinley are mocked as "so round and prosperous." The language is rough: "Bullshit makes the world go round," we hear, and a chunk of the crowd flinched at the fucks launched as though from a flamethrower by would-be Nixon murderer Sam Byck, played here with steadily mounting (and always funny) madness by Bob Hart.
The play is sometimes blasphemous in both the biblical and the civic senses such as when, during the climax, a charismatic John Wilkes Booth (Jonathan Andrews) assures an uncertain Lee Harvey Oswald that killing Kennedy will create "a joyful noise." Mostly, it's just brilliantly perverse, as when it plays Reagan's shooting for laughs or when we're treated to "Unworthy of Your Love," a moving duet sung by John Hinckley Jr. and Squeaky Fromme to their great unrequiteds: Jodie Foster and Charles Manson, respectively. With Assassins, the Olathe Community Theatre Association has mounted a ballsier show than any punk rockers I've seen in the past 20 years.
Then again, despite a number of strong performances, "mounted" might be too generous. The church housing the company is a charmer, and its auditorium is steeped in feeling, but the set itself is a stucco-looking monstrosity resembling the backside of a Taco Bell the kind of thing that makes you want to ring up the Angels listed in the program and encourage them to donate cans of black paint next time around. More dangerous is that, instead of an orchestra to capture the richness of Sondheim's score, we get one guy, keyboardist Daniel Doss, who is called upon to paint a masterpiece with just a couple of crayons. Anyone who has heard the cast recordings might miss the banjos and flugelhorns, but only one number "The Ballad of Guiteau" is wrecked by their absence. Besides, Doss is an excellent accompanist, sure-handed and sensitive; he teases out the Coplandisms in "The Ballad of Czolgosz" and the spare beauty of "Something Just Broke," the reassuring where-we-were-when-the-president-got-shot song added well after the show's '91 debut. Here, thanks to finely directed ensemble work and a host of true voices, that afterthought is a chilling highlight.
Many attending will be surprised at how funny the show is. Ably backing up the excellent Hart are Taylor Gass as Sara Jane Moore and Blythe Renay as Fromme, playing, respectively, a frazzled housewife and a love-slave of Charles Manson. They bring to each of their scenes a crackling comic energy, especially when their guns are drawn. Other times, we (well, me; some of the crowd didn't seem sold) laugh in pleased disbelief: Giuseppe Zangara (Larry Goodman) explains himself in rousing song from the electric chair, telling us he shot at FDR because of dyspepsia and a desire to visit sunny Miami. Goodman captures Zangara's nicely pained rage, and his voice is strong, as are those of the rest of the cast.
That several of our community-theater killers are more convincing in song than when delivering spoken dialogue isn't much of a problem because what makes Assassins is Sondheim, whose score is at once satiric and beautiful, both allusive and elusive. His wit has never been more mordant. It's a grown-up score, thick with adult bewilderment in the face of history. Anything simpler would be a cheat, as is made clear by the jauntily naïve Broadway finale, in which the assassins declare, "Everybody's got the right to some sunshine!" as they parade about like pageant queens. There also are a clutch of good jokes about Sondheim's own West Side Story; in one of several scabrous monologues delivered into tape recorders and mailed off to celebrities, Byck who is working himself up to hijack a 747 to crash into the Nixon White House rants at Leonard Bernstein himself about the empty promise of love songs such as "Tonight" and "Maria." The pleasure he takes in singing snatches of both more than justifies their existence, but he has a point. Those songs don't tell us anything we don't already know isn't true.
Assassins doesn't tell us the truth, either. But it gets closer: Instead of telling us lies, it tells us that things are complicated, painful and worth thinking about. It's defiantly unrealistic, untethered to time or place, offering us impossible moments (such as Hinckley pestering Booth for an autograph), moments that could come about only in the theater. Coupled with this lack of realism, the show's shapely plotlessness stabs closer to truth than any worked-out character arc; history is a jumble, lacking the clear motivations drama depends on. What's dangerous about this show out here in America's evangelical heartland is not merely its violence, profanity or politics it's the very idea of life's (and art's) complexity, the argument that we should think and feel beyond schoolbook history and black-and-white moral instruction. It's the knowledge that evil is knowable, not metaphysical hokum; it's the insistence that even those whom we rightfully hate might have something to say worth attending to.
Assassins is worth your time for its wit, beauty and daring. This particular production is worth the drive south for some spirited singing, some big laughs, and a chance to encourage the corruption of Olathe.