The Viaduct Theater is aptly named, given it’s incredibly sketchy-feeling location practically underneath the expressway near where Belmont, Western & Clybourne intersect. Walking up to the theater I got the distinct impression that I was in the wrong place, but once inside I found the delightfully grimy black box theater that reminded me a lot of going to see shows in the converted shack my university gave to the student theater companies to use.
This comparison was apt, not that the Billy Pacholski’s production of Assassins was amateurish (one of the best plays I’ve ever seen was in that student shack) but it felt like it was put together by a group of like-minded friends, because they wanted to honor the source material, which is a motivation I encountered a lot in college and less so now that I’m in the “real world.”
And I share their love for this show. A Sondheim musical about presidential assassination can be a tough sell, and honestly it’s a tough show. If someone came to me and asked me to introduce them to why I love musicals, I wouldn’t start with Assassins, but it only has one or two rivals in my mind for best show. At it’s heart the musical for me isn’t really about violence, but about America and the myths we tell ourselves and each other about opportunity and freedom of speech. In the fraught political climate we are in today it’s important to remember as the Balladeer puts it, that “angry men don’t write the rules and guns don’t right the wrongs. Hurts awhile, but soon the country’s back where it belongs…”
Pacholski said in his program notes that he wanted to move away from the vaudevillian stagings of the show that he had seen in the past to focus on the human stories of these desperate people. For the most part I think he succeeded, though it is hard to take the theatrical artifice out of a show that has no regard for chronological time or realistic setting. But the wonder of this show is that we somehow look at these characters who we are taught to believe are as monsters (John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald) or jokes (Charles Guiteau, John Hinkley Jr.) as real people with real histories. As the director’s note says we see them with “empathy not sympathy.” Their acts don’t become comprehensible but their pain does.
It’s a fine line to walk and the company, particularly Libby Lane as hapless would be Gerald Ford assassin Sarah Jane Moore and Aram Monisoff as Leon Czolgosz the sensitive anarchist with a twisted sense of justice who killed Bill McKinley, walk it well with humor and pathos. Also Nicholas Druzbanski made me actually like would be Nixon killer Sam Byck’s monologues for the first time, generally I skip them on the cast recording, but he made them seem real.
(I would tell you all to go see the show, but it closes tomorrow – sorry!!)