Yankee Doodle Deadly
Roll up, roll up, roll up. Using just the crook of your little finger, you too could find everlasting notoriety in the shooting gallery of the great American dream. With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and book by John Weidman, “Assassins” introduces nine historical misfits who each tried to claim the prize by attempting, and often succeeding, in assassinating an American president. Each of these self-proclaimed judge, jury, and executioners might have enjoyed varying degrees of infamy since the time of Abraham Lincoln, but history, as John Wilkes Booth claims, has portrayed them wrong, often burning the evidence to the contrary. They were patriots, hankering to make America great again so they might enjoy the God given happiness they’re entitled too. Epic in scope, personal in design, Selena Cartmell’s spectacular revival of Sondheim’s powerful 1990 musical “Assassins," shows Sondheim’s devastating commentary on the American nightmare still resonates today, if often for very different reasons. A gloriously stunning spectacle, “Assassins” gives voice to its nine damned and deluded dreamers in a brave and challenging production. One that, like the brightly lit outcomes of the game, can hit and miss in equal measure.
Part carnival, part game show, all spectacle, “Assassins” opens in a darkened fairground, home to rocking horses and dodgems and all manner of murder. The type of three ring circus that sets up on the outskirts of Hicksville late at night, full of freaks and misfits, where strings of coloured lights conceal an ugly underbelly. An America of carnies, clowns, and captivating candy floss vendors, where instead of shooting rows of ducks to win a prize, you shoot yourself a president. Here, gathered in their own dark corner of a Dante like hell, “Assassins’” nine infamous characters, some still living today, form an exclusive club of the damned and, eschewing plot and chronology, set about giving their side of the story. Showing an unsettling commonality through their unity, these squares, socialists, and secret admirers set about setting the record crooked. Perhaps because their job seared and scarred them, perhaps because they were fascinated by a young celebrity or a charismatic leader, perhaps because they thought they deserved to have their grievances heard, or to be an ambassador in Paris, whatever their reasons, a common thread that unites them all is a hankering for an imagined America of the rare aul times, or a future America they nostalgically long for. An America whose qualities should be embodied in the person holding the highest office in the land, held personally accountable for all their, and America’s woes. Instead of crying hail to the Chief, they each determine death to the Chief as the only way of altering history, of being remembered, seeking to pave the way for their new world rising with a bullet fired from a gun.
If costume designs by Sarah Bacon suggests a tip of the hat towards the award winning, Broadway revival of "Assassins" in 2004, her set design is a far more interesting affair. With a visual sensibility reminiscent of American Horror Story: Freak Show, ring-mastered by a less foul mouthed clown from Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses, Bacon highlights the horror and cheap glamour surrounding the American dream. All of which sees director Selina Cartmell’s “Assassins” excel at spectacle. Yet when it comes to sheer razzmatazz, “Assassins” proves a little too light and plays it a little too safe. Big punchy energy looses out to weak jazz hand moments showing little snap or pizzaz, with transitions often slow throughout. In the end the whole seems to suffer from too much revering of its highbrow themes and not enough wallowing in its lowbrow, bawdy entertainment. Something which Sondheim plays brilliantly with here, coming to the fore in moments such as a delightful walk to the scaffold by Mark O’Regan, or when Kate Gilmore’s hippy chick meets the too square to be hip Aoibhéann McCann. Throughout, there’s laughs, but too often they don’t land nearly as hard as they should. Prizes are won, but without any sparks or glitter. There’s playfulness, but it’s never really playful enough, with energy often crackling, but not always igniting.
Performances by Rory Corcoran as John Hinckley, Brian Gilligan as Giuseppe Zangara, Kate Gilmore as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, Dan Gordon as Samuel Byck, Gerald Kelly as Lee Harvey Oswald, Aoibhéann McCann as Sara Jane Moore, Sam McGovern as Leon Czolgosz, Mark O’Regan as Charles Guiteau, and Matthew Seadon-Young as John Wilkes Booth are all strong across the board, with Rachel O’Byrne, Ruth McGill, Helen Norton, Muiris Crowley, Andrew Linnie, along with Nicholas Pound as the clown like Proprietor with blood stained gloves, rounding out an impressive cast. Yet singing, while always competent, is not always compelling. Indeed vocal prowess is uneven throughout, with some harder to hear, all of which makes the excellent chorus numbers stand out, contrasting with the occasional less than powerful solo and duet. Musically, Sondheim’s richly diverse score, performed live under the direction of musical director Cathal Synnott, is beautifully conveyed, often proving to be far more evocative.
While theatrically satisfying in many respects, thematically “Assassins” will leave a little to be desired for some for addressing broader, global issues and speaking only indirectly to Irish concerns. Indeed, “Assassins” is very much a musical that speaks, politically, to the American lived experience. To many, it’s Sondheim’s alternative national anthem, the most American of all his works. Even so, musical interrogations of American politics are familiar to most nowadays in a post-Family Guy landscape. A little of whose anarchic humour and playfulness would have gone a long way to taking “Assassins” over the top of its highbrow wall and down into the dirt more often, which is where it really wanted to play, enjoying itself best when it did so.
“Assassins,” with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by John Weidman, directed by Selina Cartmell, runs at The Gate Theatre until June 9th
For more information, visit The Gate Theatre.