ART wraps up their Second Stage's inaugural season with a "lesser Sondheim" (if there is such a thing), the strange and compelling Assassins, a musical about presidential assassinations. Assassins introduces the audience to nine historical characters, all of whom at some point attempted to kill a president. Through a disjointed series of songs and vignettes, the piece explores their individual motivations, and how the actions of these "historical footnotes" fit into the bigger picture of American identity.
John Wilkes Booth, the granddaddy of presidential assassins, opens the show by distributing guns to each of the would-be assassins, from Leon Czolgosz to John Hinckley Jr. The assassins are presented as an oddly likeable bunch: misguided, maybe, but quirky, driven by desire for fame, or power, or (in Hinckley's case) Jodie Foster. After the guns have been doled out, the assassins are off to do their dirty work.
Booth (overplayed, to excellent effect, by Kirk Mouser) seems to act as the driving force behind the assassinations. A failed actor, he represents the seething resentments that accrue when the American dream goes unrealized. When Booth offs Lincoln, he sets a precedent for future All-American Losers: Can't be the president? Kill the president.
Booth's counterpoint in the play is Wade McCollum as the chipper "Balladeer," who narrates much of the action in a holier-than-thou singsong. It's sort of perverse, then, and all the more affecting, when at the end of the play the Balladeer unbuttons his nice white shirt and reveals himself as Lee Harvey Oswald. Oswald is joined in the Texas School Book Depository by the entire panoply of assassins, both past and future, who incite him to shoot Kennedy, and by doing so score some important victory over the American Dream.
Stephen Sondheim's score sounds a lot like a Sousa March colliding with a circus. The frenetic score, performed here by live musicians from a perch overlooking the stage, is at once foreign and familiar, lending the proceedings a hallucinatory air—but unfortunately, ART's acoustics were problematic, making it difficult to hear some of the words.
At times, watching the show felt like being assaulted: by the too-loud music, by frequent gunshots, by the relentless, often irritating self-justifications of the characters. But this is the point; this desperate, noisy grasping at success and spectacle. These people are the American dream turned inside out, and Assassins ain't pretty. It is, however, a polished, well-executed, and affecting production—and if it leaves you feeling shaken, or a little bit drained, so much the better.