By John Thomason
Thursday, Feb 6 2014

Legend has it that at the end of Edwin S. Porter’s pioneering 1903 short film The Great Train Robbery, when an actor playing a bandit points his gun directly into the camera and fires, many moviegoers were scared out of their wits. The medium was too new for a camera angle this sophisticated and Brechtian, so audience members were afraid the bullet would pierce the screen.

Photo: Justin Namon
Photo: Justin Namon

They’re a cauldron of schizophrenics, false patriots, cult followers, and bargain-basement kooks.

One hundred eleven years later, during the opening number of Zoetic Stage’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins at the Arsht Center, it’s clear this trick doesn’t get old, even if we happen to know better. Dressed in all black, a character known as the Proprietor (Shane Tanner) dispenses guns to various miscreants; we’ll eventually come to recognize these disturbed souls as nine assassins, or would-be assassins, of sitting presidents. But at this time, they’re simple trying out their new toys and singing about their freedom to wield them. There’s something more than a little unnerving about eight people pointing pistols at the audience of a packed theater.

They’re prop guns, of course, handled by actors who, in this case, studied with a credited firearms instructor. This doesn’t do much to alleviate the unease. But if we weren’t fully absorbed in the fiction, twitching in our seats with every piercing pop of smoky gunfire, it wouldn’t be good theater, would it?

The reason a scene like this works so well is that director Stuart Meltzer has struck the perfect Sondheimian balance between danger and beauty, a delicate tightrope he’ll spend the next two hours walking. When done right, carnage and loveliness intermingle in many Sondheim scenes, with comic irony often acting as their offspring. Just as when Judge Turpin croons gorgeously about “pretty women” while Sweeney Todd waits for the right opportunity to slit his throat, here we have John Hinckley Jr. (Clay Cartland) and Squeaky Fromme (Lindsey Forgey) pining for their paramours, real or imagined, in “Unworthy of Your Love,” a number that, were the vocalists not deranged and packing heat, would sound pure and heartfelt, the kind of tune one would envy receiving.

That said, there are probably no songs inAssassins that reach the heights of the best of Sweeney Todd or Into the Woods or Company. There are only nine original songs in this piece, some of them 20 minutes apart. This is a show that relies at least as much, if not more, on John Weidman’s book — a plotless, surrealist concoction in which the assassins are liberated from time and space to gather in a bar, influence one another’s dark thoughts, and ultimately justify, in their minds, their actions.

The characters include the actor and Civil War avenger John Wilkes Booth (Nicholas Richberg); the agitated factory worker and McKinley assassin Leon Czolgosz (Nick Duckart); Charles Manson acolyte Fromme and bookkeeper Sara Jane Moore (Irene Adjan), who bumbled through an attempt to shoot Gerald Ford; Charles Guiteau, the political wannabe who shot James Garfield; and Samuel Byck (Chaz Mena), the mentally unsound former tire salesman who attempted to hijack a plane bound for the Nixon White House.

Collectively, they’re a cauldron of schizophrenics, false patriots, cult followers, and bargain-basement kooks, each of them an all-too-familiar archetype in our sad, roiling, repetitive history of malcontents.

Under Meltzer’s direction, each assassin is bestowed with character quirks that leave a powerful impression. Richberg’s Booth, with his dark suit and ostentatious red-felt vest with a gold pocket watch, projects erstwhile Southern gallantry — a pitiful B actor with a wounded leg, limping around a Virginia barn about to be set ablaze by the authorities. Richberg is such a good actor, imbuing this cretin with such tragic torment, we actually sympathize with him a little. Mena’s Byck is America’s irate id, a fount of delusional outrage in an absurd Santa costume who, if he were around today, would probably earn high ratings on hundreds of Clear Channel talk stations.

Zenone plays Guiteau like an unctuous dandy, hilariously waving jazz hands as he’s led to his gallows. Cartland’s Hinckley is a sensitive, guitar-strumming nerd with an unhealthy obsession with a certain Taxi Driver costar, a role that feels as informed by Cartland’s own body of work as by the real-life Hinckley. As Fromme and Moore, Forgey and Adjan are the Keystone Kops of presidential assassins, and Meltzer draws some of the show’s wittiest exchanges from these two actors. The Sondheimian balance doesn’t extend to them: We never get any sense of a genuine threat when they’re onstage, but they’re so funny we don’t miss it.

The only performance that doesn’t resonate is Henry Gainza as Giuseppe Zangara, the would-be assassin of FDR. There’s not much in the script — his only characteristic is intense stomach pain. But Meltzer and Gainza do little to bring this caricature to life, and his one tune, from which he sings while strapped to an electric chair, is static; it’s the only time the production approaches boredom.

There are no complaints about the design qualities, which are some of the best in some of the best in Zoetic’s history. This is a production that continually goes the extra mile to surprise and impress, from Michael McKeever’s intricate set design — a carnival booth complete with a lighted “Take Your Shot” marquee hanging overhead, rotating presidential portraits mounted on a wall, and the presidential seal carved into the wooden floorboards — to Ron Burns’ lighting design, with its multiple spotlights and red and blue police lights hidden in crates. The amusing props, courtesy of Jodi Dellaventura, result in a couple of knockout gags I won’t spoil.