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Review - Assassins

Julie Fay
The Patriot Ledger
November 01, 2009
Blast from the past. ‘Assassins’ tackles difficult subject with humor, song, insight

From John Wilkes Booth to Lee Harvey Oswald, presidential assassins have shaped history. In “Assassins,” the musical by Stephen Sondheim, they sing and dance, interact and reveal themselves as more than one-dimensional versions of the crazed murderers taught in the history books.

“It’s not as simple as ‘all these people were crazy,’” said Jim Fagan, the director for Curtain Call Theatre’s production, which opens Friday. “It tells the story from their end, and (a director) has to walk the line between understanding these people and apologizing for them.”

The musical, which won five Tony awards in 2004, bends the timelines of American history to allow presidential murderers from the 19th and 20th centuries to converse (and sing) with one another. It’s a heavy concept, but Fagan says it’s the music that makes it work. “In a play, you’d be caught up in all this drama,” he said, “but the music tells the story so organically, it’s almost the (dramatic) scenes that seem like an interruption.”

Of particular interest to Fagan is the character of Charles Guiteau, who shot President James Garfield in 1881. According to Fagan, Guiteau was motivated by ambition and a desire for notoriety. “He had so many wild dreams and aspirations,” said Fagan, “but he has trouble in the show seemingly focusing those dreams and achieving them in a normal way. He just wants success so badly that he kills the president, and it’s a validation of his entire life. He knows he’ll be remembered for it.”

Hingham’s Roy Harris, Jr., who plays the role of Leon Czolgosz, assassin of President William McKinley, said his character’s motivations are complex. “He was a working man who had been tested severely by life in the late 1800s,” said Harris. “He worked in a glass factory, working around ovens, constantly burning his hands and being in danger of exploding glass. He was embittered by life in these preunion days because of this.”

Unlike Guiteau, Czolgosz developed associations with the political fringe, including Emma Goldman, whom Harris described as an anarchist and free-love advocate. “He follows (Goldman) around (in the show) and there is a very tender scene between the two of them, which defines the character as somebody more than just a potential killer,” said Harris.

Insights like Harris’ have been a high point for director Fagan. “We have people playing roles they are connecting with,” Fagan said. “Watching those connections has been really interesting, so see people stop judging their characters and starting to live them.”

While he’s glad to be able to present the human side of these murderous characters, Fagan has no illusions about the difficulty of the play’s subject matter. “The introspective person would find enjoyment in all the things that make one squirm about this play,” he said. “It’s thought provoking, but the music is great, the play is funny as hell and it’s wildly entertaining. So if you just want to go and be entertained, I think we can get to you with that first, and then trick you inter thinking by the time you leave.

“I’d like the audience to come out of this questioning their belief in the black and white of what they’re told.”