Assassins (1991) by composer/deviser Stephen Sondheim and librettist/script-writer John Weidman had a rocky production history. It offers a blacker-than-black indictment of US gun culture, the media, and the American Dream. After the success of the 2004 London revival, Assassins has been doing the rounds and Hayes Theatre staged an innovative, garish version in Sydney in 2017 and 2018.

L-r: Geoff Kelso, Cameron Steens, Luke Hewitt, Brendan Hanson, Will O’Mahony, Caitlin Beresford-Ord. Photo © Philip Gostelow

Roger Hodgman directs the Black Swan State Theatre Company version. Formerly director of the Melbourne Theatre Company, Hodgman has a deserved reputation for solid work. Black Swan’s cast is hugely successful, staging a piece that is musically engaging, dramaturgically and politically complex, and a real joy to attend.

That said, Hodgman’s version lacks innovation. I have used video of the 2004 production for teaching, and Hodgman does not depart significantly from it. For Perth audiences, this is hardly an issue. Nevertheless, it does mean there is not really anything new brought out here—while the Sydney version did at least offer an enthusiastically postmodern and carnivalesque take on the piece.

Even so, this study of violent losers from the American context deserves to be pondered again. The musical presents a pastiche-style portrait of nine presidential assailants and their mad schemes to bring down the symbol of America’s greatness and its dominant socio-political values. Sondheim’s brilliant score is characteristically catchy yet tricky, constantly modulating between different stylistic references. We have everything from presidential campaign motifs (Hail to the King) to folksy narrative in the style of The Carpenters, shooting-gallery music, 1970s love power ballads (a wonderfully funny combination of Squeaky Fromme singing of her love for Charles Manson, while John Hinckley obsesses over Jodi Foster), barbershop quartets (a song in praise of guns), and more.

Mackenzie Dunn as Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme and Nick Eynaud as John Hinckley. Photo © Philip Gostelow

The piece is not only a parable about the Land of the Free and the misleading promise that anyone can realise their desires in the US. Assassins is also an indictment of the role of US musicals in perpetuating these ideas. What could be more American than a plucky bunch of misfits banding together to stage a successful stage show? This is what our assassins do, crossing time to meet in the conclusion, clustered about Lee Harvey Oswald (Kennedy’s assassin).

Assassins has three central roles which guide the viewer through its jarring elements. There is the Balladeer, an endlessly upbeat everyman narrator; the Shooting Gallery Proprietor, who seduces our out-of-time figures into picking up a gun to try and shoot a president; and John Wilkes Booth, the “pioneer” who establishes the tradition the others follow by melodramatically shooting Lincoln while the president was in his box at the theatre.

Luke Hewitt has a suitably sleazy demeanour as the Proprietor, but his singing lacks the seductive force required of the part. Booth meanwhile has tended to be defined by his superlative styling as a Confederate Southern gentleman, but Brendan Hanson offers an especially wild-eyed, shock-haired and hence madly passionate Booth. Finn Alexander is also perfect as the Balladeer in that he comes across as all but unremarkable: an embodiment of bland positivity until he transforms into Oswald (again, the role doubling is taken from the 2004 version). Oswald becomes the most ordinarily unhappy man, living, in the words of Booth, a life of “quiet desperation.” Booth compares Oswald to that other tragic everyman of US theatre, Willy Loman from Death of a Salesman, and Alexander captures this ordinariness superbly. Does he represent those disenfranchised voters who Trump rallied about himself, and if so, does this mean Trump might, in effect, die by a sword wielded by his former supporters?

Cameron Steens as Leon Czolgosz, Will O’Mahony as Charles Guiteau and Brendan Hanson as John Wilkes Booth. Photo © Philip Gostelow

While the whole cast acquit themselves well, my personal favourite is Will O’Mahony who plays the extraordinary Charles Guiteau (who assassinated President Garfield in 1881). Guiteau’s motivations are particularly bizarre. A serial job-changer, after unsuccessfully trying to make a living as a singing revivalist preacher and an author, he accosted the President to ask if he could be ambassador to France, and when refused, Guiteau shot Garfield. O’Mahony’s Guiteau is a wonderfully precise, camp and self-conscious, tall, thin figure, carefully cradling a flat-brimmed hat. Guiteau delivers a virtuosic, jump-cut ballad whilst cakewalking up the gallows, leaping from Gospel singing (“I aaam going to the Loooord-yyyy!”) to vaudevillian honky-tonk (“Look-on-the-bright-side, Stay-on-the-right-side!”). Each change in step and demeanour is marked by an increasingly urgent, full-bodied sigh, as Guiteau steels himself for what he convinces himself, simply by singing and dancing, will be his victory in death. It is a standout moment in this excellent production.

The cast of Assassins. Photo © Philip Gostelow

There are to be sure a few weaknesses. Hodgman has the band partially visible beside the exit stage left, and for some reason he stages much of the action at this extreme front, left corner, which is cramped and bleeds into the wings. The set and use of projections (of guns, of the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination, and films of earlier assassinations or speeches) is very good, but a bit tautological. In Assassins’ most directly political piece, Cameron Steens’ Leon Czolgosz (who assassinated William McKinley in 1901) sings of how many have been killed in the manufacture of a gun before one even purchases it—men worked to death “in the mines, and in the steel mills.” During this we see stock footage of these very men, in the steel mills, and in the factories. The multilevel set is moreover an oddly dour, brick structure. It is presumably intend to resemble the Texas Book Depository Oswald was in, but the scale, the colour, and the fact that the two levels have the same shape and finish as each other, is quite unlike that of the actual Book Depository. For me, it resembled Piranesi’s Imaginary Prisons etchings (1761) more than anything else. Moreover, while the cast’s accents are consistently excellent, Nathan Stark’s as Giuseppe Zangara (he attempted to assassinate President Roosevelt) is too accurate. It is far easier to catch his farcically blunt words on the Broadway recording than it is in Black Swan’s more realistic version.

These are however minor quibbles in an otherwise wonderfully rendered, if perhaps over-faithful, version of Sondheim’s masterpiece of a black satire.

Black Swan State Theatre’s Assassins plays the Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre of Western Australia, until July 1, 2018


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