Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
March 29, 2013
When things don’t go well, some people blame themselves. Some blame others. And some try to take the whole country down with them.
Those would be the angry, alienated subjects of “Assassins,” Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s searing 1990 musical exposé of the nine nutcases whose despair, politics or dyspepsia were so extreme, their only recourse was to take aim at the President.
Framed as a rundown, red-white-and-blue carnival shooting gallery, this is a darkly disquieting show. The centerpiece is John Wilkes Booth, forebear of these rabid American hitmen .
“Every now and then,” one song says, “the country goes a little wrong.”
There’s some of their disaffection and disconnection in all of us; that’s how Sondheim manages to humanize these sometimes less-than-human beings. In a ferocious final moment, Booth comes back with all the other assassins in tow, to convince Lee Harvey Oswald to do what Brutus did, taking down his leader to insure his own immortality. Chilling, as the Zapruder film of JFK’s shooting plays across Oswald’s t-shirt.
You wouldn’t expect much comic relief in this dismal funhouse, but there’s a hilarious pairing of Lynnette “Squeaky” Fromme , obsessive lover of Charles Manson, and harebrained housewife Sara Jane Moore, both of whom took shots at Gerald Ford. Melissa Fernandes and Melinda Gilb are a hoot in their scenes, part of a splendid ensemble at Cygnet Theatre. In this excellent, stylish production, deftly directed by Sean Murray, each of the whackjob characters is sharply etched. Braxton Molinaro is an especially brutal and charmingly seductive Booth.
Each of the assassins has lucid moments, maybe even an understandable gripe. But they soon devolve into some level of monomaniacal madness. Empathy becomes antipathy; we are both riveted and repulsed.
Then we meet someone who turns his destructive tendencies on himself; we feel sympathy for sure, but revulsion also rears its head in “The Whale.”
In Samuel D. Hunter’s heartbreaking 2012 drama, Charlie has attempted to assuage his grief and despair by eating himself into a 600-pound mass of medical problems. He can barely move off the sagging sofa, and when he tries, it’s gut-wrenching to watch. His only friend, a nurse, brings him KFC by the bucket. His estranged teenage daughter, furious and cruel, overdoses him. His ex-wife is appalled. And a 19 year-old Mormon missionary wanders in, lost in more ways than one.
There’s a whole lot of hurt here, and yet, despite all the damage, these deeply flawed but still sympathetic characters feebly continue to reach out to each other. At South Coast Repertory, Martin Benson directs an outstanding cast.
Both these theater works are profoundly disturbing. There’s no redemption at the end, but they do shine a light on the extreme range of human behavior, and why some people do the awful things they do.
“The Whale” runs through March 31 at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa.
“Assassins” continues through April 28 at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town.
©2013 PAT LAUNER