Revisionist History: Two Second Acts of John Wilkes Booth
Lily Janiak
Wednesday, October 17, 2012


When Galen Murphy-Hoffman enters the stage in Shotgun's production of Assassins, you recognize his character immediately. The ashen complexion, the mustache, the frock coat, the fixed, ghostly stare: a portrait straight out of a history textbook.

But in this Stephen Sondheim musical, John Wilkes Booth is not just an eerie image of, as the lyrics go, the villain who brought the nation "to its knees" or "paved the way for other madmen." Susannah Martin's sensitively directed production shows Booth and other would-be and actual presidential assassins as people who express the typical frustrations with society but, unlike everyone else, refuse to let society stifle them.

The production resonates with election-year narratives. Sam Byck (a disturbing Ryan Drummond) tape-records messages for his target, Richard Nixon, and also his idol, Leonard Bernstein, which reflect the truth-twisting of a certain recent presidential debate. But the show is also timeless as an achievement in musical theater; its storytelling is just as complex as Sondheim's notoriously manic melodies.

The stories don't proceed chronologically but rather weave together across time and space. John Hinckley Jr. (Danny Cozart) and Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (Cody Metzger) come together for a sappy ballad about unrequited love, while Booth persuades Lee Harvey Oswald (Kevin Singer) that killing the president will solve all his problems. The characters are always in dialogue with the American dream and their own historical legacy. Sondheim and John Weidman, who wrote the musical's book, clearly see assassination as an attempt by the assassin to rewrite his or her own story. But history, embodied by the smug and watchful "Proprietor" (Jeff Garrett), will always prefer its own version.

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