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Saturday, February 10, 2007

Lunatic Sorbet: Porchlight Theatre's Assassins

Last night we ventured to Theatre Building Chicago for a palate-cleansing production of Assassins mounted by Porchlight Theatre. As the evening was largely a success and a pleasure, I will get my two bitchiest notes out in the open immediately and then move on:

  1. Dear Fellow Theater Patrons: Why yes! That is your inside-your-head voice I'm hearing. And no, I don't know where you came across either the energy or the mental slate so repeatedly blank to be so volubly shocked every time the word "whore" or "fuck" is uttered.
  2. The alligator bites at Bourbon on Lincoln really suck.

So, for anyone just tuning in, I have high emotional investment in Sondheim's Assassins by virtue of having worked on a production in college, and last summer, we saw a pretty tragic production of it. So, in short, I've been looking forward to Porchlight's production for some time, not just because I obsessively seek out productions, but also because I needed my faith in the lunatic fringe restored. No pressure, guys.

For my needs (and isn't theater in Chicago all about my needs?), Porchlight's production is ideal: It is well sung and solidly acted by a talented cast mercifully backed by a good mix of competent musicians (that's not to damn them with faint praise, I was just ready to settle for people who'd heard of music before after my last Assassins experience); the physical design was gorgeous and showed beautiful attention to detail; and, best of all, the direction showed a unique and cohesive vision of the play that explored it in a genuinely new way that's still true to its heart.

The show was in the same space in which we saw Sideshow, so it's a wide space, but not particularly deep. For this production, in addition to the majority of the seating opposite the stage, they'd opened several short rows at stage left. That's the default stage left of the theater, not of this particular set, which was neither quite in-the-round nor a traditional 4th-wall orientation.

In the program, the setting is given as "An American Warehouse," which sounds basic enough. Opposite the bulk of the seats (the "upstage wall"), a set of rough wooden doors was framed by brick and topped by a set of multi-paned windows. On the "stage-right wall," opposite the smaller bank of seats, the brick and windows only extended from ceiling to about one-third of the way down the wall where they ended in a wooden beam that suggested both a mantel piece and rafters. Above these seats, there was a third set of windows in a brick wall. Each of these sets of windows served as the screen onto which the slides were projected. (It's worth noting that the script is very specific on what slides are to be projected and when; this production departs pretty significantly from those directions.)

Throughout the rest of the theater, any raised area, however small, was filled with crates, trunks, and other odds and ends, giving the sense that the entire audience was sharing the same space with the cast. Despite this message that we're all literally in this together, the show requires a few discrete staging areas.

The space dedicated to the stage was divided into two main areas. The floor level was bounded by four wooden support poles (necessary, I realize, but often a sight-line problem for us, despite the fact that we were sitting about dead center of the larger part of the house), backed by the wooden doors, and fronted by the main part of the house. In the upstage left part, there was a more or less permanent set piece comprising a carefully haphazard collection of crates stacked together with luggage, a vintage radio, red-white-and-blue-bunting and other bagatelle, with more crates stacked in the upstage right corner. These turned out to be moveable (the more ornate piece, when reversed, immediately transformed the space into the book depository), but they were left in place for much of the production, giving the floor of the stage its own internal and external space, which became important in the course of the show.

Beyond the support posts at stage right, there was an actual "stage," although it was only about 18 inches high. Beneath the "mantel," this ran the whole length of the wall, projecting out about 4 feet. That platform was then fronted by a thrust another 3 or 4 feet deep that extended across about the center two-thirds, resulting in a squat T shape (or the world's most underachieving ziggurat. Against the wall, this stage was cluttered (again, carefully, painstakingly. This is one of the most thoughtful and deliberate sets I've ever seen, and it's a credit to designer Kevin Depinet) with A variety of odds and ends from eras spanning the relevant 120 years of time: more crates, more bunting, more luggage, but also a portrait of Lincoln (which falls face down, exactly on cue after Booth's shot), framed triangle-folded flag, a 60s-ish film projector (which flicks into action exactly at the top of "How I Saved Roosevelt").

The show, of course, can be a nightmare to stage, with its abrupt transitions from one setting to another (and, often, one century to another), call for vintage props and pieces, and lack of intermission, all of which have to be negotiated amidst a pretty large cast and choreography. The crates that form the backbone of Depinet's set functioned beautifully to store and conceal props and to transform into set pieces that could be easily broken down on the fly by the cast. They were attractive, capacious, and WHISPER QUIET, so they functioned equally well whether they were being used between scenes or as part of the action. I covet those crates. I could totally put yarn in them.

Just to give two of my favorite examples showcasing a set that was beautiful, functional, and integral to the show: At the top, the chorus, dressed in varying shades of white and cream and styles suggesting the different eras, enter on the chorus that starts out "Another National Anthem"; The crates are stacked in the center of the lower stage to suggest a coffin, which is draped with an American flag; they approach and two of the men fold the flag, military style. Moments later, of course, this same space is meant to be a fair ground where the Proprietor sells each of the assassins his or her gun. The Proprietor swaggers over to the crates and opens the top two with a flourish, revealing a full-featured, street-hucskter type of display. Fabulous.

The second deals with the sticky issue of the on-stage hanging, also known as, "Thank you so bloody much Mr. Weidman for assuming that I can pull a gallows out of my ass with no scene changes." In this case, the Balladeer simply and inexorably constructs the stair to the gallows out of the crates during the course of the "Ballad of Guiteau." To be sure, we don't get to see him swing (the drop is symbolized well enough at the other, weighted end of the rope), but we also don't devote a large portion of the stage to something that gets used precisely once, halfway through the show.

Turning from the set to the direction (two elements of the show, I'm glad to say, that are not easily separated), I wasn't 100% in love with all Michael Weber's decisions (and, hey, wouldn't life be boring if I were), but I absolutely admired his willingness to take chances on an original approach to the text. I should probably disclose that part of my mad love for this production stems from the fact that this it marks the nearest thing to the vague vision for it that I've had since the very first time I heard the recording of the original Playwrights Horizon recording (Geeky Crossover Alert: fans of The Dresden Files, please note that's Terrence Mann, aka Bob, as Leon Czolgosz on that recording).

Hmmm, it seems I've somehow never committed My Vision to electrons for consumption by the ages. It amounts to this: Assassins is an intensely intimate show, which sounds like a strange thing to say about a show with 9 main players, but I think it's true. Whether or not they were aware of it, each was carving out a reality of his or her own. On the canvas of Assassins, they come together in yet another reality—the one that we have created and are still creating. But the play is a kind of Wiki War between mainstream society and the players. Even as the text hems them in and highlights the absurd foundation of their most triumphant moments, it gives them equal power to expose us in all our morbid, hypocritical, vulture-like, schadenfreud-ic glory.

I've always loved how powerfully the us-vs.-them vibe comes through and is then revealed to be way the hell too simplistic. And I've always felt that the Sondheimian curve ball would pack even more of a whallop by stripping things down to a bare minimum. My ideal staging wouldn't have a chorus, just the assassins and the Balladeer (please note, I have no idea if this is even musically possible in terms of the vocal roles called for in the score). Everyone would be on stage at all times, and the other assassins would use the minimal props and costumes stashed around the set to create each of the vignettes, playing roles as necessary. Even as I'm committing this to writing, I'm realizing that this approach hits some serious roadblocks in the straight dramatic scenes, and I'm digressing anyway.

Weber's direction certainly shows that he gets the intimacy of Assassins. In his directors note, he states
Assassins is a fantasia. . . . No mere history lesson, Weidman and Sondheim play with time and space, fact and speculation, nationalism and extreme individuality in an exploration of the mythic resonance that results when one person loses control and the aftermath to punish the guilty, heal the wounds and tell the story.

Given that it is literally true that Assassins takes place out of time and in a wholly unreal space that combines specific individuals and composite characters, point of view can be a bitch, and communicating the nature and extent of intersections is easy to handle badly. So here are a few things what need knowing:

  • What is the relationship between the chorus and the assassins and how aware, if at all, are they of one another? (For the record, I think Zangara is the only assassin who even seems to interact with them textually.)
  • How aware are the assassins of one another, particularly during the numbers that feature individual assassins?
  • What's up with the Balladeer? Certainly he is addressed by Booth, but it is unclear whether the other assassins are aware of him at all, let alone whether or not his presence is persistently obvious or intermittently?

    And, actually, a question I'd never really thought about before this production, because we folded our Proprietor into the chorus (and I'm pretty sure that Boxer Rebellion did as well, and I know Open Eye did):
  • Why have a Proprietor?

Weber's doesn't pull any punches with his views on these, and some of those are pretty innovative. Starting with the chorus, in "How I Saved Roosevelt," Zangara's objections to the chorus's version of his story were much more fiercely made than is usual. To underscore his cognizance of them and fury at their slanted deconstruction of his motives and actions, the perspective on the scene literally flips back and forth: The chorus wrangles amongst themselves for control of the vintage mic, focusing their story on the two parts of the house by turn; when Zangara is wheeled out in the electric chair by the Balladeer (huh . . . I was about to write "by the Proprietor," but in thinking about it, I'm pretty sure it was the Balladeer at this point), they move to sing "upstage" and out the now open wooden doors while Zangara has our attention.

During some (but not all) of the straight dramatic scenes, the Balladeer (in a fabulously hideous green docent's jacket) leads the chorus down the aisle in between the front row of the house and the stage, pausing to allow them to contemplate these curiosities in silence. The assassins are aware of—and even try to engage—them, but these museum patrons strike the correct thoughtful-adjacent pose and move on. (One of the male chorus members added a nice touch, oblivious to the waves of hate rolling off the assassins as he pauses to read a plaque on the way out.) Later, the second of Byck's monologues is moved from the driver's seat of his car into the airport itself where he frightens off a mother and child (both chorus members).

This production is the first we've seen that included "Something Just Broke." As I've said before, I have mixed feelings about it in terms of what it does to the momentum between Oswald's shot and the finale. Musically, I love every inch of its dissonant, arrhythmic, Sondheim-y goodness. In this production, its use was, like everything else, thoughtful and deliberate. The chorus up until that point has been on the other side of the glass (or the velvet rope, if you prefer, and Weber does in the very final moments of the show): The side of opportunity, normalcy, freedom of movement, belonging, and where the tyranny of the majority serves well the needs of its constituents. It's easy to resent their inane comments, their immaculate clothes, and their construction and rabid consumption of the simple soundbyte. It feels right and comfortable to identify with the bunch of freaks (ok, so maybe that's just me, but I don't think so).

It's to the credit of the book and the music (and, of course, to this entire ensemble) that your basic antiviolence hippy consumer of Sondheim gets to that place. But—and this is important—said AHCoS shouldn't overlook those you stupid, racist, narcissistic, hopped-up-on-thegoofballs, pathetic, myopic, addled SHIT moments.

As I mentioned earlier, the mostly static set piece up left had been reversed to create the book depository. Similarly, its upstage companion piece is reversed immediately after Oswald's shot to reveal a vintage television. It and the window-pane screens show the footage of the aftermath, with Jackie awkwardly sprawling out over the back of the car. Of course I've seen that footage a million times. It's never particularly moved me, unless one thinks that dark, inside-my-head moment when I wondered if there's a White House protocol for recovering the shattered remains of your husband's head constitutes "being moved." Here, spooling out in painful, real time, it got to me pretty seriously. She's so young and so famously and impeccably dressed and it's awful. And yes, it's manipulative to have your adorable 9-year-old cast member (Sam Schumacher) sitting, transfixed in a pool of amber rose light, right in front of all it's awfulness, but hell: art manipulates, ya know?

This same 9-year-old (at least the program says he's in 4th grade: he was awfully small for 9) is an integral part of why "Something Just Broke" worked. Although sung lines still waft from chorus member to chorus member, wending their way through time and situations, Weber kept the focus on Trista Smith, who'd represented the Kennedy Era pretty consistently throughout. I'm not sure if her voice was going or the raggedness was a deliberate choice, but it worked to give the number an underlying raw quality that really anchored it. Most of it is also played specifically as if she is explaining what happened to her little boy. I'm still not sure about the number as a routine inclusion, but I liked it here (for the record, so did M, who'd neither seen nor heard it before), and it's safe to say that Weber started earning its place from the very first decision to have the chorus, not the assassins, open the show.

Moving on to the relationship among the assassins, I think Weber's on board with the intimate nature of the show. This production assumes instant affinity and camaraderie, some shared quality that moves them all along similar lines of force. This is easily accomplished in how one choreographs and stages "Everybody's Got the Right," but it can be a vibe that's difficult to maintain. In this case, Weber deploys a few different techniques to keep up the links.

First, in the move I was most unsure about, he writes in additional dialogue that includes Squeaky and Sarah Jane in the bar scene. It's an odd, crowded scene to begin with (it's notable and in keeping with Weber's answer to the above chorus/assassin question that he omits the chorus member who is supposed to play the bar tender), and the new dialogue wasn't exactly seamless. Second, the other assassins (not all of them at all times) are visible in the wings of each of the stages created by the assassins as they get the opportunity to tell their stories. I should have paid closer attention to who was visible/present when, but then again I didn't because I was focused on—well—the focal assassin in each scene. I definitely enjoyed the stage-within-a-stage technique, which underscores the impossibility of unearthing any single reality out of those anarchic moments and their aftermath. But it was ultimately a little busy and, at least to my eye, not as deliberate and cohesive as the rest of the choices.

One final note on the inter-assassin relationships: There was a choice near the end that sounds completely goofy, but boy did it work! One of the members of the chorus is clad in a ballcap and white coveralls. He stands out a bit, because he's not really from a definable period, unlike the others. At the end of "Another National Anthem," the other assassins tear the cap from his head and literally rip the coveralls off his body (it's a tear-away) to reveal him as Oswald. I swear to you: I never saw it coming.

The most interesting and bold take of the production, though, was really dissecting the identity of the Balladeer . . . LITERALLY! (Please don't hurt me, L. You'll see what I mean.

First, I've got to talk about the Proprietor. In the book and score, he exists for the space of the opening number. As I said above, most productions simply use a chorus member for this role, so he's present throughout the show in a variety of guises. Here, from the opening number it was clear that there was something different going on with him.

When the chorus takes the stage before the opening number, they enter by the same route as the audience in all their rosy-cheeked, white-clothed glory. In contrast, the Proprietor appears from a backstage entrance in all black. Ben Dicke, who also played one of the prisoners in Court Theatre's Man of La Mancha, has dark hair and extremely pale skin. He also has strikingly wides-set eyes and . . . let's face it . . . he comes from villain central casting. During "Everybody's Got the Right," he engages quite actively with each of the assassins, placing the guns very deliberately in each hand, sometimes even closing their fingers around them. He is also the voice announcing "The President of the United States [pause as he riffles showily through a deck of cards]—Abraham Lincoln."

Shifting gears to the Balladeer, he isn't exactly clothed in white, but kind of in generic homespun. Michael Mahler, the actor playing the Balladeer, is small, fresh-faced, and good looking in a very "real person" way. By turns, I thought of him as looking like Keanu Reeves , Ted Raimi, and Jonas Quinn (not Corin Nemec, you understand). in "The Ballad of Booth," JWB himself is aware of—and annoyed with to understated humorous effect—the Balladeer from minute one, as he readies his own props and costumes to reenact (and it is quite pointedly and effectively a performance on Booth's part) his last moments with Herold in the barn.

So both Balladeer and Proprietor engage more constantly and explicitly with the assassins from the very beginning. They don't at all look alike, and yet they are a good physical pair (much like the salt-and-pepper-shaker Sheridan Whitesides I've mentioned before). As the production goes on, neither is omnipresent, but they're there at strategic moments (the Balladeer's are scripted for the most part, the Proprietor's appearances are novel). Eventually, some of the Balladeer's lines (all sung as he has no spoken dialogue) are given over to the Proprietor, who takes an increasingly active role in the assassins' scenes. Finally, in "Another National Anthem," the Proprietor is explicitly "with" the assassins and against the Balladeer, who fights his way out as they surround him, dispersing evil with the power of his acoustic folk.

Back when I was railing against going to the Torgo place for the Balladeer, I said (oh, someone kill me, I'm quoting myself):
Let me tell you a little about The Balladeer. The Balladeer IS America in Assassins. He is not a good guy by any stretch of the imagination, but that should not be immediately apparent. . . .The thing is that there has to be something appealing about [him], no matter how menacing and smug he turns out to be.

In this production, Weber essentially splits the character into two: Mahler is what is good and uplifting about America (or at least the idea of America, whether or not that retains any meaning); Dicke is the America that cultivates the fringe it despises. Mahler is Metropolis; Dicke is Gotham. Or something.

It's an idea that's interesting as hell and all concerned pull it off in the majority of cases. There are times when the Proprietor's appearance is a little too odd or intrusive. For example, he throws open the doors (to the extent that one can "throw open" pocket doors, which is, admittedly, not a very great extent) during "Another National Anthem," and his wifebeater and suspenders are just a little too Fosse. Likewise, I couldn't help screaming (in my inside-my-head-voice, which remained firmly inside my head, I cannot help pointing out to my fellow patrons) "BAD TOUCH" as the Proprietor not only guides Hinckley's hands on the guitar strings at the beginning of "Unworthy of Your Love," then strokes the thigh of the meditating Squeaky. In the interests of full disclosure, I may have just been having Sentient-Couch-No-Exit flashbacks. But those minor criticisms aside, it was a really fruitful choice that was well implemented.

I've mentioned a few performances in passing, but nearly everyone in the cast deserves special mention, especially given that we've seen a number of these actors before. Brandon Dahlquist (Czolgosz) was notable for the flimsiness of his disguise as Terry in Sideshow: We all know he's a time-traveling Cary Elwes. I can't say his Czolgosz is my favorite (I'm still a big fan of what I think Clay Sanderson was capable of in the Open Eye production, and Dahlquist just didn't move me as much); however, I noticed in his dramatic scenes that he'd worked with the extremely odd phrasing so that they believably sounded like the result of Czolgosz not being a native English speaker. It's also worth noting that Dahlquist is simultaneously starring in Porchlight's Teapot Scandals, so maybe he's just dead fucking tired. Crazy man.

The oddest deja vu of the night came when I saw that Sarah Jane would be played by Sara Sevigny. You may remember her from such roles as Sarah Jane Moore in Assassins. Yes, that's right, this was literally a repeat performer from the Open Eye production. At that time, I had more issues with the fact that the director seemed to have no concern whatever for what show he was directing. Sevigny continued to be funny (although a number of her choices were identical to the performance I'd already seen, so it was a bit stale for me), but she was more restrained in the park scene with Squeaky, for example, and even broader (but in a way that worked) in her interaction with Billy. Again, she's unlikely ever to be my favorite, but her performance grew on me immeasurably with the stronger direction.

That said, I'm not sure Maggie Portman's Squeaky broke much new ground (at least for me) with her performance. But it was a very good performance: Charming and irritating in the right spots, and her side of the love song was quite touching. I was firmly appreciating Weber's choice to have her cut the cross on her own forehead (which, of course, is true to life) at the big finish of "Unworthy of Your Love," but this prompted yet another round of ejaculatory commentary by the asshats in front of us, and it was later gone, which irritated my inner continuity whore.

Steve Best as Guiteau probably gets the rest of the mildly wagging finger. He was gymnastic, energetic, and funny, to be sure, and Guiteau needs all those things. However, things got a little one note, as we missed the depressive part of the equation. Both Dahlquist and Best deserve full kudos for their vocal performances.

Jeremy Rill as Booth also shone in a difficult vocal role. For the most part, he also pulled off Booth's arrogance and charisma. He seemed a bit shaky (and maybe unsure of a few lines?) in the Book Depository scene, but overall he was a pretty big win. Bradford Lund was a good Oswald and one that kept quite clear of Oswald impersonation. So far, in fact, that at times he seemed a bit too forceful, but that was the way the scene was playing off Rill last night, so I'm not really lodging a complaint.

Two other performances that I really enjoyed were Jeremy Trager's (Zangara) and Kevin Bensley (Hinckley). Trager did an excellent job actually inhabiting a character, when it's all too easy to lapse into stereotype with Zangara. His ability to do "How I Saved Roosevelt" as written formed the sprinkles on top of a really strong performance. Bensley was a very different Hinckley than I've seen before, and one entirely appropriate to the vision of this production. He was altogether more extroverted and articulate, which is in keeping with the preexisting bonds among the assassins. It was a a refreshing way to play a character that, admittedly, works pretty well even when one goes the easy "Giant Loser" route.

And oh sweet jeebus! I very nearly forgot to talk about Daniel Allar as Byck (we'd also seen him as Big Jule in Guys and Dolls)! I have serious Byck issues, as I've disclosed before. So I'll get it out of the way and reveal that Allar is not Jay Franks, and he can't help that. But hey! Guess what? An actual characterization goes a long way. Allar is about 12 billion feet tall, and he works that. He's sloppy and drunk and pathetic, but he has his own kind of eloquence. And in his second monologue, he is not afraid to pull out the emotional stops and explore Byck as a damaged individual. I still cling tight to Jay as my ideal, but Allar gave a hell of a performance. Even without the Yoohoo!

I hate to lump the chorus into one when they were such an important part of why this production works. They were vocally impeccable, dramatically interesting, and choreographically sound, down to the little guy who danced the hell out of a nicely arranged "Ballad of Czolgosz." It was good to see Elizabeth Christine Turner (who'd played the bearded lady in Sideshow) again, and her Emma Goldman had some nice new moments, despite affliction, as always, with Marina Sirtis accent.

Michael Mahler probably takes home the MVP from my perspective, though. He played the banjo (with strings and everything!); he played the guitar; he stepped up to the plate in conveying grief and outrage, all the while maintaining the role of historian and storyteller. His inclusion as the docent and in "Something Just Broke," just felt right, and I don't think they would with an actor who was more afraid of fading into the background.

But playing favorites aside, this was a great production from a team that obviously worked well together. The recovering theatre whore in me wonders how much they hate each other behind the scenes, but unless the answer is "not even a little bit," they're pulling quite the enjoyable scam.

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