Darkly humorous “Assassins” provokes in election season
Lance Knobel
Tuesday, October 9, 2012


It’s eerie watching Shotgun Player’s new production of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins in the middle of a presidential race. You can’t help but wonder about the daily rallies with President Obama in front of masses of supporters. Assassins suggests that the discontented who might seek a single “historic” act are just too common in our society.

Assassins is a darkly humorous musical revue, with each of nine assassins taking their turn on stage. The father of them all is John Wilkes Booth (played by Galen Murphy-Hoffman), who opens the evening with his assassination of Lincoln offstage. Most of the other assassins and would-be assassins are far less well known. Charles Guiteau, played in a wonderful comic performance by Steven Hess, assassinated James Garfield in 1881 (then again, how many people remember Garfield, either?). Leon Czolgosz (played by a morose Dan Saski), who assassinated William McKinley in 1901, is another trivia answer, rather than a historic figure.

Three of the intended assassins are from much closer to our day. There are the two Californian women who made assassination attempts on Gerald Ford within 17 days of each other in 1975 — Squeaky Fromme (Cody Metzger) and Sara Jane Moore (a very disturbing Rebecca Castelli). The book of the musical, by John Weidman, plays very loosely with the history to occasionally riotous effect. (It does make a better story if Moore had gone to high school with Fromme’s lover Charles Manson. It is true, however, that Fromme met Manson on Venice Beach.)

Then there’s Sam Byck (Ryan Drummond), who planned to assassinate Richard Nixon by flying a plane into the White House. He got as far as boarding a DC-9 in Baltimore and killed the co-pilot. In Assassins, he pours out his problems in a tape recording addressed to Leonard Bernstein (for whom Sondheim wrote the lyrics to West Side Story). The real Byck did send tapes to Bernstein, as well as Jonas Salk.

In the tight confines of the Ashby Stage, director Susannah Martin has worked wonders with Assassins. The big cast is always on stage, with an eight-piece band ringing the back of the set. Kevin Singer, as the Balladeer, glosses the stories with vigorous banjo playing.

Shotgun’s Assassins will have you laughing at many points in the 100-minute production. But it will also have you wondering whether you really should be laughing as the production exposes some of the grimmer realities of the American dream and our society.

  Shotgun Players | 1901 Ashby Avenue | Berkeley, CA 94703 | 510-841-6500