I’ll be completely honest. When I walked into Quill Theatre’s Assassins, I was wholly planning on taking offense. I was ready and waiting for my American pride to come out in full force upon any irreverential depiction of Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, or Kennedy’s assassinations. And I don’t even know the first thing about James A. Garfield.
But from the first scene onward, I was continually surprised. Assassins is a satire of some of the most somber events in American history, but by the second act I found myself chuckling. My laughs started as uncomfortable sniggers, but they developed into outright guffaws in response to timely commentary on egomania and American exceptionalism. How can such a serious theme encourage comedy?
The Balladeer, Stacie Rearden Hall, guides the audience through our history, introducing along the way some of the villains from our high school textbooks. She creates an alternate timeline where all these characters, despite their disparate time periods, can interact, facilitating thought-provoking and hilarious dialogue.
John Weidman’s book characterizes the assassins, successful and unsuccessful, as troubled, funny, and sometimes pitiable Americans. Some, like Leon Czolgosz, are looking for their places in society. Czolgosz, brilliantly played by Levi Meerovitch, is a Polish factory worker who felt marginalized and belittled by William McKinley’s America. Meerovitch’s performance and Weidman’s storytelling skill ingratiates the audience towards a man who shot a president at point blank range. As a history student and someone who cries every time she sees the Lincoln Memorial, I thought this was impossible.
Other assassins, like John Hinckley Jr., portrayed by Dante Piro, are simply young, lost, and obsessed with something they cannot have. Everything about this character may seem relatable. All the characters are nuanced. No character in this musical is simply an assassin.
Sondheim’s music challenges poses a challenge, as usual. In fitting with the rest of the musical, the lyrics and composition are unsettling. Dark humor abounds in the opening number, which consists of the Balladeer distributing guns to the future assassins, suggesting in a minor key that all of their problems may go away if they “kill a president.” The voices are strong and embrace this atypical music. And the closing number from the ensemble can best be described as bone-chilling.
Quill Theatre’s Assassins in one phrase? Productively unsettling. The show forced me to explore more deeply the reasons anyone would want to kill a president. It maintained a reverential distance from the presidents themselves, it presented serious themes in historical context, and it did it all to music.
Assassins from Quill Theatre runs at Firehouse Theatre through November 26. Because of thematic imagery and language, this is a good one for high schoolers and older. Go here for showtimes and tickets.