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Saturday, November 22, 2003

Whizzing Among the Stars

When I went to Into the Woods a few weeks ago, I had made the prediction to my Sondheim-disliking herd that a production of dear Stephen's Assassins was unlikely to ever be mounted in our current Rah-Rah-America-We'll-Put-A-Boot-in-Your (Insert National Slur Here)-Ass climate. Shows to go what my predictions are good for, 'cause the Boxer Rebellion Ensemble opened one less than a week later. Realizing that there's no better way to commemorate the 40th anniversary of JFK's assassination than to go see a show the upshot of which is, "Well . . . sure those assassins were nutters, but CUTE nutters, and some of 'em had a point . . ."

In early September 2001, M forwarded me an article about a production of Assassins that was finally going to be mounted on Broadway. Neil Patrick "Doogie Howser" Harris was slated to play the combined role of the Balladeer and Oswald (the casting combination is not usual and I had mixed feelings about it). Naturally, all hell broke loose about a week later and the production was scrapped. I get it. I really do, especially given that Sam Byck's scenes deal extensively with his plot to hijack a 747 and fly it into the White House. It was neither the time nor the place for it, but I despair of there ever being a time and place for a major production now.

Assassins is a show that I've loved from the first time I heard it. I also have great nostalgia for it, as it was the last show I was involved in during college. Memory is a strange thing. I worked on that show during a pretty terrible time in my life. My 4-year relationship was disintegrating, partially because I was the AD for it and my boyfriend was the TD. This translated into me being out all evening at rehearsals and him being gone all night building sets. In addition, his complete inability to make decisions about his future (I was already set for grad school) were making both of us tense. Add to this that I was trying to break ties with psychostalker boy at that point (he didn't merit the official title yet; the harassment and fight at graduation would prompt that).

The production was being mounted by University Theatre, the "official" group on campus (read "The one with money, permanent space, and logistical support"). I'd agreed to work with them because I really wanted a chance to work on this particular show. It was against my better judgment that I'd agreed to do this. My lone experience with UT had been directing a studio Halloween show a few months earlier, which had been an incredibly unpleasant experience. Working on Assassins did not turn out to be a great improvement. UT was an incredibly cliqueish, political environment (hence my avoidance of it to work with an overstressed, underfunded group for most of my college career), and throughout it was abundantly clear that I was not "one of them."

Just when rehearsals for Assassins were really ramping up, I got a call I'd never anticipated. At the time, Shoestring, the group with which I usually worked and on whose board of directors I served, was mounting a production of Sister Mary Ignatius Explains it All for You by Christopher Durang. Because of my involvement in the Sondheim, I had only been peripherally connected to it, although I had been asked to understudy one of the main roles (something we didn't routinely do). It was two days before its opening and the woman playing Diane bailed, meaning I had 48 hours to learn the lines, blocking, etc.

Just in case that wasn't enough pressure, suddenly, everyone involved with either the production or the group itself began being bombarded with protest phone calls and letters from the local Catholic Church, the archdiocese, and a myriad of other folks, up to and including the Anti-Defamation League (that's right, I've been denounced by the ADL. Go me!). After more time has passed than I care to contemplate, this pisses me off incredibly. It's. A fucking. Play. Dissent: It's the American Way, Motherfucker! Etc., etc., Anyhow, I played Diane. We crucified a Rainbow Brite doll. We had the bitchinest papier mache camel ever created We traumatized a group of retired Episcopalians. Sister Mary Ignatius turned out to be one of our best-attended shows. It was all good and then back to the bosom of Sondheim.

As things got down to the wire, relationships within the production devolved even further. The costume designer had some kind of emotional crisis accompanied by a total taste meltdown. She put Squeaky in a paisley polyester shirtwaist that Carol Brady would have thought frumpy with a kind of long, red felt vest over it to represent her "religious robes." It was both hideous and utterly inappropriate. The designer spied the actress playing her and another cast member rifling through the wardrobe racks trying to find something else and demanded to know what they were doing. The non-Squeaky cast member, a remarkably even-tempered, diplomatic woman, jovially replied, "Oh, we're just trying to hunt down something a little groovier for Squeaks here!" The designer just lost it. She started screaming at the two of them, ripping costumes off the rack. I'm pretty sure that "No. Wire. Hangers. EVER!" came out of her mouth at some point.

Just when I was getting worried for the physical safety of the cast members (I had been in the lounge painting a chicken bucket and ran in when I started hearing racks crashing), she tore out of the costume room to find the director, with whom she was close friends at the time. Having hunted her down, she just tore into her about what a talentless control freak she was, what a terrible job she was doing, how everyone hated her directorial decisions, and how she and the rest of the crew were not going to stand for her undermining them. The director, an almost preternaturally calm and self-contained individual, burst into tears. I think that shocked the onlookers far more than designer meltdown (truth be told, I'm pretty sure there was more than one betting pool regarding when that would happen).

All of this drama was transpiring in the labyrinthine halls of UT's offices on the third floor of the Reynold's Club. This is one of the many gothic buildings on the U of C's campus and, as such, it has the obligatory Gone with the Wind staircase at its center. In other words, any emotional egress from UT is necessarily melodramatic. Director and designer turned on their heels and swept out, each choosing a different side staircase. Nearly colliding on the first landing leading into the common grand staircase, they recoiled from one another. Turning an offended shoulder foremost, they each started to rush down the center stairs only to pull up short at the penultimate step before hurtling headlong over a pair of massive floor buffers that were parked at the bottom.

So now we have two very pissed off women standing cheek by jowl at the bottom of the stairs, staring blankly at floor zambonis. A hoarde of on-lookers and would be comfortadors is piling up behind them. Slowly realization is dawning that we are, all of us, confined to the second and third floors of the building unless we want to wade across floors spread with tacky, toxic, shoe-killing wax. You cannot write comedy like this. I think that it speaks volumes about the composition of UT that not a single smile was cracked. No chuckle rang out. The two sides simply devolved into factions that clustered, whispering, around the director and the designer. I went back to painting my chicken bucket.

So why the nostalgia? Well, despite the personality bullshit, our production rocked. We had a positively kick-ass cast, a wonderful music director and orchestra. The set turned out beautifully (although I'm not sure that the techies who wound up having to have tetanus shots on UT's dime after a day of scrounging around dumps, retrieving appropriately rusted chainlink and sheet metal would say it was worth it). We did not inadvertantly hang Guiteau for real even once.

That's a lie though. I'd feel nostalgic even if it had sucked. I miss doing theatre tremendously. I miss acting, even though I suck. I miss directing, even the prissy bitch ones. I miss busting my ass to make sets and costumes and props out of nothing. It's the only thing I've done that is so thankless and so rewarding at the same time. And at this distance, the pain makes for funny stories, whereas the thrill of performance is still there, completely undiminished and untouched by all the petty shit. So yeah, I'm full of warm, fuzzy psychotic feelings for something that went on during an exceptionally dark period of my life.

Um . . . but enough about me: I started writing about the Boxer Rebellion's production. The BRT has a great reputation in Chicago and I'm ashamed to admit that this was my first production of theirs. One of the actors from the Wood films I worked on had a well-regarded performance there that I had meant to attend, but I think I was busy having a screaming match with director of said films, as was our wont. Given their rep, I was surprised by how small and dumpy their space is (still, it's fixed space, which is a boon beyond compare for an ensemble). M and I very nearly missed curtain because we had trouble finding it.

The theatre probably only seats about 40 people maximum. It's a black box space about 15 feet across and maybe 25 feet at its maximum depth (not all of the width is that long, however, as the entrance is off a hallway that cuts in considerably). Despite our late arrival, I really needed to use the bathroom before we found our seats (damn you, Cafe Cubano!). I asked the house manager where I might find a bathroom and she pointed through the theatre and behind a canvas curtain painted with a dull, dirty, red-white-and-blue star pattern. In my country, we call where she was sending me "backstage."

As I slowly wandered back, I was half convinced that tit was some kind of elaborate ruse to get an unwitting audience member involved in the opening number. Fortunately, this turned out to be unfounded. There were a few guys in line ahead of me and we chatted about our fear of stepping on something important or bringing down the entire set while stumbling around in the darkness. When the guy immediately ahead of me came out he said, "I put the seat down, so you won't have to touch it," as if he were conferring some great favor on me. You always put the seat down, got it, fucker?

The house wasn't full, but it was still a fairly good crowd of probably 25 or so. The staging was pretty conventional, although it was a nice use of the space, considering that the musicians had to take up some of the already quite limited width. The lack of space no doubt accounted for the sparse "orchestra" (keyboard, drum kit, and guitarist), as well. They were set up in a tent about 4 feet wide running the length of the wall at stage left. Pre- and post-show, an opaque canvas curtain separated concealed them, but before the opening number, the Balladeer cased the stage, arranging set pieces, and dropped a nickel in a box labelled "Play a Tune for America! 5 cents!" triggering the curtain to go rise, revealing a translucent partition between the musicians and the stage.

Upstage right was a set piece extending from floor to ceiling that remained draped in canvas painted with a mock up of the presedential seal for most of the performance, save during "How I saved Roosevelt," when the coverings were raised to reveal the chorus in two "frames" stacked on top of one another. It also served as the prize pegboard during "C'mere and Kill a President." The chorus gimmick worked exceptionally well, as the conceit of the song is macabrely cheery eyewitnesses to Cermak's assassination are recalling how lucky they were to be there, so making them appear as if they were on TV worked despite being wildly out of period. Overall, though, I think the structure took up a considerable amount of much-needed space.

At center, a series of oddly shaped crates (tyoped as "crepes" initially; go 'way, Olav) formed a makeshift staircase at the top of which was a large wheel divided up into red and blue wedges, each of which had a president's face on it. Throughout, the balladeer (or another character after he'd been "driven off") would turn the wheel so the target of the assassin featured in the scene was uppermost. The staircase served as the scaffold for Guiteau and to give the sense that Squeaky and Hinckley were no longer in the same physical space during their duet. Byck leading "Another National Anthem" from the top of it also worked nicely. The topmost step opened to serve as Byck's car during his second monologue, which was ingenious.

Stage left of the stairs was another large set piece that remained draped for most of the show except "How I saved Roosevelt" during which the balladeer opens it to reveal Zangara in the electric chair. The infamous star curtain opening was upstage left of this and where most of the actors entered. The electric chair box was definitely a mistake as it crowded upstage left incredibly, made entrances and exits quite awkward, and interfered with some staging like the line-up to McKinley during "Big Bill."

The cast was good overall. The Balladeer was positively excellent, overcoming the considerable handicap of being a dead ringer for a young Richie Cunningham. His voice was top notch, more than compensating for the fairly frequent fluffs on the part of the musicians, and he was exactly the right combination of smarmy and menacing. Guiteau was loud, manic, and hilarious. This worked well during his numbers ("Gun Quartet" and "Ballad of Guiteau"), but was just a bit much during the straight dramatic scenes. It wasn't even that his delivery didn't work objectively (in fact, I think that the brilliant choreography during his ballad really needed a build up so the audience was prepared for its sheer lunacy), but rather that the space was simply too small for it.

Squeaky's voice was lovely and most of her acting was spot on although, as with Guiteau, her acting in the dramatic scenes would have benefitted from a bit more dynamic, rather than hovering around a fevered pitch as she did. Booth's acting and singing were quite good, although it was obvious he struggled with some of the upper range of his part and he wasn't as confident a singer as the balladeer, so the weakness of the musicians were more obvious. Sarah Jane sold her wacky performance well and still managed to generate sympathy for her character. Her singing was not bad, except during the "Gun Quartet." I have a feeling that it was more the fault of an inept rearrangement than her vocal weakness per se, but she certainly came out of it looking like the villain.

Czolgosz and Zangara were, alas, pretty much eyesores on the acting front. Czolgosz's cheeks had been smudged with makeup to simulate long-term exposure to the factory ovens. It was way too overdone for such a small space and the constant scowl he'd apparently been directed to maintain only made it more obvious. The chorus member who played Emma Goldman opposite him in his mercifully brief dramatic scene really shone in comparison despite her visit to the Marina-Sirtis-school of Russian accents and that's about the nicest thing I can say about his acting. To his credit, however, he at least had a good voice.

This is more than I can say for Zangara. He simply yelled all of his lines while exaggeratedly clutching his stomach and doubling over. To add insult to injury, he clearly did not have the pipes for the role, which, I'll grant you, has a heinously large range. In our production, we'd considered rewriting the end of "How I saved Roosevelt," to spare the poor actor, but he was adamant that he wanted to do it as written. Seeing this, where they rewrote it extensively, I see that that was the right decision. Lowering Zangara's part over the chorus at the end utterly destroys the eerie light-hearted melody over the bombastic march.

I've left Byck for last in a futile attempt to be fair to the actor's performance. I simply can't be. He was lousy. He was mealy-mouthed. I didn't believe for a second he had the kind of whacked out anger that defined Byck. There was no urgency or desperation. I really do believe all that's true, but in the interests of full disclosure, no one will ever be Sam Byck to me except Jay Franks who played him in the production I worked on. During auditions, we had seen virtually no one for Byck. There wasn't even anyone with whom the director could have worked extensively who would have served.

As the final choices were being made, we were getting panicky. I'd had a Shakespeare class with Jay and seen him in . . . something or other; I really can't remember now. For whatever reason, he was on my mind when the director turned to me and said, "I've got this friend in mind. I really think he'd be perfect, but he's out of town for another two weeks, so he can't audition. His name's Jay Franks." As soon as his name was out of her mouth, I said, "Cast him. He's it." She was worried that there'd be bad feelings among those who had auditioned and been turned down or, worse, auditioned and cast in a chorus role that we'd take someone sight unseen, rather than them. I told her to screw politics and she did. And he was perfect.

Other than the casting weaknesses and some problems with the musicians, there were a few minor technical snafus. They'd decided on using a follow spot for many of the scenes, presumably because the space has a minimal lighting grid and in a place that small, everyone will be roasting before the prologue's over if there are too many traditional stage lights. However, whether through faulty equipment or an operator who needed a big dose of L-Dopa, it really didn't work. The movement was slow and jerky and half the time they couldn't get it aimed high enough not to cut off the actor's head. Also, during the third number, one of the chorus members bumped into the musicians' tent hard enough that they jostled the slide projector on top of it. Czolgosz musta been a pretty good shot to hit Big Bill when he was bobbing and weaving like that.

So the production wasn't perfect, but they did justice to the score and story. I was interested to note that they omitted "Something Just Broke." It's a number performed solely by the chorus after the long scene with all the assassins and Oswald, relating the reactions of regular people the various assassinations. It was cut in the Playwright's Horizon workshopped version and included in the production I worked on. I always had some mixed feelings about it. It really does break up the momentum and draw focus away from the main players after they've rid themselves of the balladeer.

During one of our performances, a group of folks from Northwestern (including my bud D, the perky fluteplayer) who were going to mount a production over the summer came down to see how we'd done things. The would-be director was vocal in her intense dislike for the number, which raised the hackles of our director. This was the same night on which we had invited a faculty member to lead a discussion with the cast and audience after the performance. I don't remember whose responsibility it was to track him down, but I need to go back and shoot them, if I haven't already. They somehow picked the author of a rebuttal to Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK, which was the book at the time. He ranted to an ominously silent theatre about Capone having been behind Zangara and Cermak being the actual target of his gun and other sundry subjects for a good long time while our director and the Northwestern chick stared daggers at one another.

Good times. Good times.

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