Wednesday 19 June 2019

The dark side of the American dream

Killer lines: Matthew Seadon-Young as John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln's assassin
Killer lines: Matthew Seadon-Young as John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln's assassin

Katy Hayes

Given the controversy generated by the present incumbent in the White House, Assassins is a cheeky bit of programming by Dublin's Gate Theatre. Created by Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and John Weidman (book) in 1990, the show collects together a variety of people who have assassinated, or attempted to assassinate, the president of the United States of America.

It interrogates these characters as a part of the American dream, albeit the downside. If anyone can aspire to the highest office in the land in America so, too, can anyone buy a gun.

There are nine assassins depicted, stretching in time from John Wilkes Booth, who killed Abraham Lincoln in 1865, to John Hinckley Jr, who made an attempt on the life of Ronald Reagan in 1981. The show culminates with the story of Lee Harvey Oswald, who shot John F Kennedy in 1963.

Presented as a fairground attraction, where ordinary members of the public are offered the opportunity to take a gun in their hand and have a potshot at a president, the show has a tone of grim humour: the fairground lights fire up with "hit" or "miss", depending on whether or not the target is felled. Sondheim's music is an eclectic mix of musical styles from the different eras, ranging from military undertows to straight-up musical theatre. Weidman's book is a clever engagement with the psychology of these misfits.

The shape of the show is a revue: each assassin is given an opportunity to tell their piece in story and mostly in song. It is a technically difficult show, and utterly dependent on the power of the singers.

Gerard Kelly, who plays The Balladeer and Lee Harvey Oswald, has a strong musical-theatre voice, but his technical polish feels out of place in this more eclectic collection of voices. There are, however, many high points, including the irrepressible Mark O'Regan doing a fine character interpretation as the religion-obsessed Charles Guiteau. Kate Gilmore as the Charles Manson groupie Lynette (Squeaky) Fromme and Rory Corcoran as Hinckley, who shot Reagan in an attempt to impress Jodie Foster, create something special out of their duet, 'Unworthy of your Love'. Matthew Seadon-Young, as John Wilkes Booth, gives a memorable embodiment of the first assassin, the trend-setter.

Sarah Bacon's pure Americana set and costumes are fantastic. The fairground ladies, Ruth McGill and Rachel O'Byrne, strut their stuff with bullseye targets on their backs. Lighting by Sinéad McKenna has a tawdry brashness, with carnival garlands strung across the auditorium. Director Selina Cartmell injects plenty of energy, including roller-skates. When first produced, this show was controversial in its humorous treatment of a serious and calamitous subject. But now, in an era where mass killings have become the equivalent transgression to political assassination, the black humour here is slipping into history, becoming quaint and losing its transgressive edge.

Remember the time when angry Americans used to just kill a president, rather than dozens of ordinary folk at a music festival?

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