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A group of social malcontents gather in a dingy basement and conspire to bring the US government to its knees. Sound familiar? Although Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s Assassins premiered in 1990, the musical gains an eerie prescience in an Arden Theatre Company revival directed by Terrence J. Nolen.
Since its debut, the show has always been uncomfortably topical. The first Persian Gulf War began while the original production was still running in New York, and a planned Broadway revival was scotched in 2001 after the events of 9/11. When that production finally arrived on the Main Stem, the country was in the throes of the so-called War on Terror. All these historical moments added an extra-textual element to the exploration of fundamentalism and radicalism, reminding the audience of the many reasons one might choose to lash out at the government.
The current production takes that a step further, directly weaving in contemporary analogs. Familiar images flash onto the back wall of Paige Hathaway’s set: the January 6th insurrection, the Charlottesville uprising, scenes of recent mass casualty events. (Jorge Cousineau designed the essential projections.) Nolen creates a link between the tense uncertainty of the present and the politically charged violence throughout history that Sondheim and Weidman investigate. He recasts the Proprietor (Matteo Scammell), a slyly malevolent interlocutor who indirectly facilitates the characters’ evil deeds, as an internet podcaster sowing discord in a virtual community.
The murderers and their would-be compatriots—John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald, Samuel Byck and Sara Jane Moore—could be anyone, especially as clothed in Maiko Matsushima’s quotidian costumes. And when you think about it, that’s exactly who they were before perpetrating the acts that would define them forever: an actor, a factory worker, a salesman, a housewife. As Sondheim observes in “The Gun Song,” all it took was a flick of their finger to change their lives and the world.
Perhaps more than ever, we are aware of the potentially threatening people in our midst. And we know that in many cases, they look no different than our neighbor, our teacher, our family member. Nolen’s production makes that point with chilling clarity.
Detailed, uncomfortable depth
A fine cast aids the storytelling, bringing detailed—and sometimes uncomfortable—depth to their characters. Christopher Patrick Mullen infuses Leon Czolgosz, the murderer of President William McKinley, with an aching melancholy. Harrison Smith’s John Hinckley Jr. is almost pitiable. Katherine Fried’s Squeaky Fromme captures how idealism can dovetail with obsession, and Monica Horan’s Sara Jane Moore shows how boredom and disillusion are gateways to acts of madness. There’s no question these people are dangerous. At times, though, their motives are scarily understandable.
Robi Hager stitches the action together as the Balladeer, an audience surrogate who wryly recognizes the folly of using murderous acts as an engine for glory. He comments on the action in a meltingly beautiful tenor voice with baritonal shadings before morphing into Lee Harvey Oswald, who carries out his assassination of John F. Kennedy after a fateful imaginary encounter with John Wilkes Booth (Miles Jacoby, who could use a touch more charisma in playing the vainglorious actor).
“Something just broke”
Sondheim’s top-notch score makes probing points and is handled with delicacy and fire by the Arden’s chamber-sized orchestra under Ryan Touhey’s musical direction. Weidman’s book can occasionally seem smug and shallow, and long stretches pass between songs, somewhat zapping the rising tension that builds in the musical numbers. No production can fully overcome this, but Nolen’s comes as close as any I’ve seen.
Assassins ends with a song called “Something Just Broke,” in which ordinary people realize the world has irrevocably changed in the wake of a seismic action. It’s a feeling that has become disturbingly common in recent years. In the Arden’s staging, we see exactly how such breaks happen, and we’re left to wonder if it’s even still possible to pick up the pieces. Booth puts it best in his eponymous ballad when he observes that “the wounds are forever.”
What, When, Where
Assassins. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by John Weidman, directed by Terrence J. Nolen. $30-$60. Through October 29, 2023, at the Arden’s F. Otto Haas Stage, 40 N 2nd Street, Philadelphia. (215) 922-1122 or ardentheatre.org.
The Arden is a wheelchair-accessible venue. There will be open-captioned and audio-described performances on Friday, October 13, at 7pm and Saturday, October 14, at 2pm.
Masks are not required.
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