The Victoria College Drama Society premiered its production of Assassins at the Isabel Bader Theatre last Thursday. The musical is based on a book by John Weidman, with the music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. The play is extremely political, as it critiques the idea of the American dream and America as the land of opportunity. However, it also explores themes of human nature, such as freedom of choice and personal accountability. There are some hints to mental health issues; according to the director, Jeff Kennes, Assassins helps us “gain a more comprehensive picture of the intersection between cultures of violence and mental health.”
The play features assassins, or attempted assassins, of United States presidents. The play opens with a circus backdrop that reads, “Shoot a Prez & Win a Prize.” The assassins then enter the stage one by one. Each assassin is handed a gun, as the Proprietor (Cole Currie) entices them to assassinate a president through the song “Everybody’s Got the Right.” The song touches upon the idea of the American dream, which the play completely destroys.
The first assassin we’re introduced to is John Wilkes Booth (Gianni Sallese), who infamously assassinated Abraham Lincoln. Booth claimed that he “killed the man who killed his country.” Booth then shoots himself after lamenting that his assassination, which he dedicated his life to, will not change history. The Balladeer (Brandon Vollick) appears and tells Booth’s story. He attempts to dissect and analyze the motivation behind Booth’s assassination. He doesn’t simply dismiss Booth as “mad.” Rather, he questions why Booth would “bring a nation to its knees.”
The stories of the remaining assassins unfold, including their motives for the crime. There’s a general yearning among the assassins to be remembered not just as “a footnote in history books.” While the assassins are gathered, Guiseppe Zangara (Kenzie Tsang) complains about stomach pain, and Charles Guiteau (Nam Nguyen) speaks about his ambition to be Ambassador of France. As a solution to their problems, Booth suggests an assassination of Franklin Roosevelt.
Assassins also addresses America’s socioeconomic divide through Leon Czolgosz (Devon Laird). When one of the characters breaks a glass bottle, Czolgosz reacts in anger and horror and dictates his struggles working in a bottle factory. He recalls the many men that have to suffer to make a new bottle. Guiteau tells him he needs to find a new job. Czolgosz angrily responds that there is no other job, and not everyone has the same opportunities, therefore dismissing the idea of America as a land of opportunity. Czolgosz says that men with money control everything.
Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Meredith Shedden) naïvely delivers her speeches on Charles Manson like a teenager looking at her boyfriend with heart-eyes. Fromme and her companion, Sara Jane Moore (Julia Orsini), deliver the most hilarious scenes in the play. They prepare to assassinate their president, Gerald Ford, but Moore brings her dog, which she accidentally shoots, along with her nine-year old daughter. This causes a dispute between the two women. When the president enters the stage, he helps Moore pick up her bullets, which have scattered all over the floor. Fromme tries to shoot, but her gun jams. After they have failed, Moore throws her bullet at him and shouts, “Bang.”
As the remaining assassination stories unfold, the play reveals ulterior motives for the assassins. They all have personal reasons for murdering their presidents, driven by frustration at their inability to fulfill their goals in an oppressive society. As they gather on stage, the Balladeer tells them they must chase the American dream. They sing “Another National Anthem,” in which each assassin states why they assassinated, or attempted to assassinate, a president. Czolgosz says he did it because he thought it was wrong for one man to have so much power, while others have none. Booth did it to avenge the Confederation and bring down the Lincoln government.
They all gather in the end, interrupting Lee Harvey Oswald’s (Vollick) suicide attempt to convince him to assassinate John F. Kennedy. After their attempts of coercion and manipulation, he finally does it.
The group of assassins, in their final scene, gather on stage and point their guns towards the audience, singing, “Everybody’s got the right to be happy.”
Assassins offers a satirical retelling of America’s dark history. The play simultaneously mocks the assassins and explores their motivation. In doing so, it deconstructs the American dream and reveals the corruption inherent to society.
Assassins ran at the Isabel Bader Theatre from March 9 to 11.