Democrat and Chronicle
by Jeff Spevak
Danny Hoskins apologizes for the chaos.
It was standing-room only last week at Blackfriars Theatre — the new seats had yet to be installed — and rehearsals for the company’s season-opening offering were on the verge of coming together. There’s the smell of glue from the new carpet, that might induce some dangerously creative thinking. And the play, Assassins, compounds the chaos: A musical about nine people who assassinated, or attempted to assassinate, a president of the United States of America.
A musical about presidential assassins! With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, an icon of the theater who last year was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“Not an easy subject to sell,” concedes Hoskins, in his second season as Blackfriars’ artistic director. But perhaps not his hardest sell. “It’s tied for first with The Pillowman, which I directed at Blackfriars six years ago,” he says. “A dark comedy about child murders.”
Assassins opens Sept. 2 and runs through Sept. 24, and the 126 comfy new seats will be in place at the intimate venue on East Main Street. As assurance that the Rochester theater community has the Sondheim cultural canon covered, he is also the composer behind Geva Theatre Center’s season-opening musical in October, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. A different kind of chaos.
But that’s how theater people work, isn’t it?
Janine Mercandetti, who’s co-directing Assassins with Hoskins, is gliding on a swing suspended from the room’s ceiling rafters. Below her, 14 high-spirited actors are chatting, singing, fiddling with props. Blowing off excess energy. They’re young, that’s what the young do.
Mercandetti descends from the swing and calls the actors to gather in a circle around her. She leads them in an exercise that involves shaking their limbs, then holding hands as they sloooooowly roll their heads, their shoulders, then bend toward the floor, stretching those vertebrae. “Take a breath in,” she says. “Take a breath out,” she says.
Breathing. It’s an acting thing.
They gather around a piano as Andy Pratt of Brighton leads the group in some vocal flexibility exercises. Choruses of sounds, buzzing, humming.
Harmony. It’s a musical thing.
Then everything seems to be happening at once. Actors rummage through the detritus of the oncoming show. Foam heads of presidents: Lincoln, Ford, Reagan. Music stands, a wig on a Styrofoam head, costumes spilling out of open cardboard boxes, empty liquor bottles, a sketch of what the completed set will look like, half-century-old copies of Playboy magazine. And at least three ladders. Where are they going?
Open musical instrument cases are scattered about. Trumpets, French horn, flute, drums, banjo, accordion, two pianos. This is one of the changes that Hoskins has brought to this production. Rather than a pit band, the entire company of actors play the instruments. That device has been used before, although it is rare. In a 2005 revival of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, even Patti LuPone tooted a couple of notes on a tuba.
Another departure: “The original script opens in the shooting gallery of a carnival, and the proprietor sets everyone off on their path,” Hoskins says. “He’s handing them guns, calling them to action.” But Blackfriars’ presentation broadens the setting, with a two-level backdrop representing a carnival. “The balloon pop, the milk-bottle toss,” he says. “People walking around with candy boxes strapped around them. The cut-out posters where you can stick your head through a hole and get your picture taken as the Bearded Lady.”
And the carnival workers. “They themselves become the characters,” Hoskins says. “In putting on a jacket, putting on a hat, they become the character in front of our eyes.”
Oh, Sondheim and John Weidman, who wrote the book, will still recognize their work. “It’s just a conceptual shift,” Hoskins says. “All the language and all of the music is as written in the script.”
At last week’s rehearsal, the assassins’ weapons were laid out on a table: They’re made of carved wood and clothespins, like the fake guns prisoners used to make when they were planning a break out of Alcatraz.
Nine historical assassins appear in Assassins, including John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated Abraham Lincoln; Charles Guiteau, who assassinated James Garfield; Leon Czolgosz, who assassinated William McKinley in Buffalo; and Lee Harvey Oswald, who assassinated John F. Kennedy.
“The three Oswalds have learned the flute part,” Hoskins says.
That’s right, three different actors are poised to play Kennedy’s assassin. Which one gets the part each night of the show depends on who draws the short straw as the story unfolds. As the winner – or is it loser? – nears Oswald’s appointment with destiny, two actors form a book depository window out of rope. As a chorus builds, Oswald (at last week’s rehearsal it was Lani Toyama Hoskins) levels a preposterous-looking rifle at JFK’s motorcade. The gun is constructed from wooden chair spindles. Oswald shoots. The chorus stops. The actors pick up their instruments and begin playing a tune. It is a dirge-like “Hail to the Chief.” Oswald grabs a flute. “He joins the group musically,” Danny Hoskins says. Oswald’s in the infamous club.
Of the assassins, Hoskins says, Oswald “becomes the most-important, story-wise. Booth is the catalyst for the story in this limbo they are in. He becomes the catalyst for Oswald to shoot the president, in order to validate the past assassins, validate them in the future.”
Actors frequently ask writers and directors, “What’s my character’s motivation?” So, what’s the motivation of these assassins, Oswald in particular?
“This is the one that really shook the world,” Toyama Hoskins says; she is married to Danny Hoskins, so their recent conversations over dinner must be particularly bloody. “It’s almost a rite of passage for him to be in this group. After the shot, there’s almost a sigh of relief. He’s finally accomplished something after so many failures in his life.”
Yet some of the assassins of Assassins failed when their moment on history’s stage was at hand. Gerald Ford, historically as nondescript as presidents come, was actually the target of two unsuccessful attempts. Both by women. The play takes literary license with history by combining the two incidents.
There is chaos in Assassins’ theatrical structure. In describing Assassins’ interfacing of carnival workers and historical assassins, Toyama Hoskins uses the phrase “parallel universes.” Abby Adair Reinhard says it “bends the space-time continuum.” The Pittsford resident is Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, one would-be Ford assassin. Reinhard says Fromme’s motivation was to draw attention to Charles Manson; she was on the fringe of the murderer’s cult, and didn’t actually want to shoot Ford.
“I wanted to kill him,” Rachel Walsh says with assurance. The Rochester actor plays Sara Jane Moore. Moore, who shot at Ford but missed, didn’t have the purple hair that Walsh is sporting at the rehearsal. “All of these themes from years ago have really come through," Walsh says. "It definitely resonates with the national conversation today.”
One of those themes? “Not feeling we can achieve the American dream,” Walsh says. “People expect the new president to fix everything. And they blame this one figurehead for every problem in the nation.”
“The whole show is kind of morose,” Reinhard concedes. “Hysterically funny at times, morose other times.”
How is comedy presented when presidents are being shot? In one scene, Reinhard and Rachel Walsh scramble to pick up the bullets that have fallen out of Moore’s gun; Ford helps pick them up. The accident-prone Moore also has her dead dog in her purse during that scene, but that’s kind of a running joke through the play.
Other reasons for shooting a president seem abstract. “You know why I did it?” bellows Steve Cena, as Samuel Byck. “Because there isn’t any Santa Claus.”
We don’t know if Byck actually said this. In 1974, Byck attempted to hijack an airliner ready to take off from the airport in Washington, D.C., and fly it into the White House, hoping to kill President Richard Nixon. But the plot didn’t get off the ground after Byck shot the two pilots, and he killed himself after being wounded by a policeman.
But we do know this, says Cena, a Massachusetts native who’s lived here for years now: “Byck is the everyman.
“He isn’t going anywhere in life, nothing is going the way it’s supposed to,” Cena says. And there is something in Byck’s virtually forgotten moment in history that resonates today as well. In his plan to fly a hijacked jet into the White House, “They reference him in the 9/11 reports.”
Assassins is tough, uncertain territory. “It wasn’t well received when it opened off-Broadway in ’91,” Hoskins concedes. But theater companies kept at it, and in 2001 it was set for Broadway. Until 9/11, when the producers and cast decided Assassins was inappropriate for the moment and pulled the show.
But it returned in 2004, with Neil Patrick Harris as Oswald. It won five Tony Awards.
“The music is so intricate and beautiful and moving and filled with all of this passion, I don’t know how to say it even,” Hoskins says of Sondheim’s compositions. “I think the reason people come back to this piece is because of his ability as a musician and as a songwriter.”
It’s that chaotic dichotomy of artistic beauty and a difficult theme.
“I’ve heard Weidman and Sondheim talk about how they wanted to get behind the actions of these people, the horrible acts they committed,” Hoskins says. “This was really about the characters, about the human side of them. What motivates them? What humanizes them? What is it about the culture in America? We want to know why people do these horrible things.
“As a culture, we feed into the need to have that explanation. The need to have the knowledge of how it happened, why it happened. I didn’t want to make a commentary on whether these acts were good or bad or horrible. It’s just to lay this out there, and let people decide why they did what they did.”
If you go:
When: 8 p.m. Sept. 2; 8 p.m. Sept. 3; 2 p.m. Sept. 4; 7:30 p.m. Sept. 8; 8 p.m Sept. 9; 8 p.m. Sept. 10; 2 p.m. Sept. 11; 8 p.m. Sept. 17; 2 p.m. Sept. 18; 7:30 p.m. Sept. 22; 8 p.m. Sept. 24.
Where: Blackfriars Theatre, 795 E. Main St.
Tickets: Ranging from $20 to $39.95, available at blackfriars.org.