‘Assassins’ strikes at the American dream with stunning play

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In school, we study the presidents and the legacies they leave. But what about those with a darker legacy? For some, the land of opportunity corrupts, and the desire to leave.

The Adrienne Arsht Center and Zoetic Stage explored this perversion of the American Dream in their powerful production of “Assassins.”

“Assassins” was written by Stephen Sondheim and opened off-Broadway in 1990. Its first Broadway run in 2004 won five Tony Awards, including Best Revival of a Musical.

The show tells the stories of nine men and women who have attempted to assassinate the president of the United States. Sondheim stages the action in the guise of a carnival game, where everyone has a chance to “take your shot” at making history and changing the country forever. The narrator highlights each assassin individually in this vignette show, but they also interact across time and space in intermittent scenes, often with weighty thematic ramifications.

As is often the case with episodic drama, Zoetic’s production took some time to find its footing. The early scenes lacked elements of a unifying theme and story arc that Sondheim’s script demands. As a result, the opening section had more of the feel of an engaging history lesson than the piece’s intended social commentary.

Fortunately, strong performances lifted the show from its slow start. Gabriel Zenone was perfectly self-important and pompous as Charles Guiteau, the disgruntled office seeker who shot James Garfield. He found the humanity in a man so convinced of the truth of the American dream, he continued to espouse hope of being elected president while standing on the gallows. Chaz Mana was similarly impressive as Samuel Byck, the assassin who targeted Richard Nixon. He possessed dynamic onstage presence, and his portrayal of Byck’s unhinged disappointment in his life and his country was surprisingly affecting.

“Assassins” was at its most riveting when the players commiserated and bickered among themselves, conveniently overlooking the impossibility of such conversations. These moments where worlds collide emphasized the common thread tying the murderers together, the need to be noticed, as was highlighted to devastating effect in songs such as “Another National Anthem.”

The show’s concluding confrontation between John Wilkes Booth, portrayed with seductive malevolence by Nicholas Richberg and Lee Harvey Oswald (Chris Crawford), was nothing short of transfixing, with the fate of not only the nation, but the other assassins, hanging in the balance.

Technical aspects of the production were absolutely superb. The saloon set evoked an old-time Americana which accented the lost American dream of the characters. The lighting design was particularly impressive, with evocative colored washes and gaudy flashbulbs to create an ironic carnival atmosphere.

As Americans, we value our right to say what we please, but even the Constitution can’t guarantee our right to be heard. As Booth says at the end of the play, there are countless people leading lives of “quiet desperation;” the only difference with these men and women is that they refused to remain silent. Zoetic Stage and the Adrienne Arsht Center raised troubling questions about inequality and marginalization in America with their production of “Assassins” that will not soon be forgotten by its audience.

If you go:

“Assassins”

Where: The Adrienne Arsht Center Carnival Studio Theatre, 1300 Biscayne Blvd. Miami, FL 33132

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, Sunday at 4 p.m. through February 23rd.

Cost: $45

For more information, call 305-949-6722 or visit www.arshtcenter.org

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