Assassins – Stuffed to the Kills

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Assassins, Photo Credit: Rob Clatterbuck

A REVIEW BY ACHILLES FEELS

Stillpointe Theatre Initiative and SpotlightUB have paired up to produce Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins – a ballsy move for both parties, IMHO. Stillpointe hasn’t worked in this space before and, to my knowledge, Spotlight UB hasn’t ever mounted a full, Broadway-style musical with a pit of eight and a cast of eighteen. I point this out as a note of importance. I’m a big, big fan of new collaborations on the scene.

There’s no getting around the slightly sleazy porn-star aesthetic of Assasins’ time period, which is certainly comical. Beyond that, though, the semi-farcical nature of the show strikes a major chord for our current gun-obsessed American Times. A woman shoots her pet dog dead whilst rummaging through her handbag – that’s some funny shit…but not really. The show is a sort of historical review of U.S. presidential assassins (successful or no). The action opens with The Proprietor (Kevin Cook) selling weapons to each of the murderers in candy-store fashion. Each character exhibits a dark fascination with the firearms that pushes the prologue towards unsettling. These moments set the tone for the rest of the show. Scene by scene we watch as the Balladeer (John Schratwieser) entices and instigates each of these murderers into assassination and treachery. “Balladeer”is of course a word that means “one who sings or composes at ballad” and that’s exactly what we see here. Schratwieser is an all-seeing narrator that seems, at times, to control the action during these semi-historical vignettes. Some of these are stand alones, such as the story of Leon Czolgosz (Brian Kraszewski) whose hands are burned in a glass bottle factory. Other are multi-perspective, the entire cast interacting, without any thought given to historical accuracy (Sondheim, famously, doesn’t give a shit about such nonsense). This creepy storytelling style makes you feel like you’re at a sideshow, passing booth-by-booth to witness each of these character’s lives. It’s brilliant, unnerving, and makes the content-heavy show much more accessible. The play is at times ridiculous, sure, but at other moments it’s touching, real, and just a little too close to that American Dream.

Overall, the production was thoroughly enjoyable. The giant cast did a fantastic job; I won’t name each of the cast members one by one, as there is a bit of confusion with the program printed by SpotlightUB (for one: why are the writer and composers not credited? I’m pretty sure the production rights contract stipulates that the originators of the work need to be in the printed program #watchthatguild). The cast as a whole kicks major ass, though. To pick out my absolute favorites is difficult, but I’d say the work by John Schratwieser (Balladeer) was my number one, with John C. Wilson (Sam Byck), Jon Kevin Lazarus (Lee Harvey Oswald), and Patrick Martyn (Charles Guiteau) as super close seconds. Vocally every. single. character. held their own in one way or another. While these weren’t Broadway voices, we got off-off-Broadway sound which is much, MUCH better than any musical I’ve seen recently. Pit was fantastic, too, something that Stillpointe always excels at, at in my opinion. Lead by Howard B. Shaver and crammed into tight quarters behind the action, the musicians really filled out a Broadway (Soundheim!) musical. I only wish the band and the voices where bit more balanced; there were moments I missed words or whole phrases and that really drives me crazy with Sondheim.

I was pleased to see director Ryan Haase developing even further with this one. Perhaps having Kimberley Lynne at his side has kicked him up a notch. He touches some of the really strong blocking and stage pictures that have been attempted, but not quite hit, in his last couple of shows. I’ve never seen Lynne’s work before but I only imagine she’s a force pushing the company forward where Stillpointe had, perhaps, plateaued. It’s a killer team and I’m looking forward to seeing more work by this duo in the future.

Looking at the production as one large visual, there were some issues. The damned stage is too damned small for that number of people, though, as I mentioned, the directors did fine with what they were forced to use. Haase’s set was maybe a bit neutral and looked a little recycled from previous productions. When the performance is taking place in a stark-white, contemporary lecture hall, you want to throw a little more delineation between the playing space and the house. I’m going to chalk that up to Haase not having the tools/time/money to work his normal magic as, usually, the man turns trash into visual treasure. Don’t tell Ryan he can’t do something, just give him a paint bucket, an antique chandelier, and some wooden pallets. Then get the hell out of his way. Am I right, Oracle? [Completely. – TBO] Lighting design by Janine Vreatt was much better than I thought it would be considering that damned hall and extremely limited equipment. I was losing faces at times, but that could have easily been mark missing. I tend to like a bit more color in a musical, but that’s me. Sound design by Todd Mion worked okay. The guns missed the target, though. The performers are obviously miming the shootings to time with a shot sound effect. The synchronization is occasionally quite dramatically off, which ruins the effort. I’d recommend more rehearsal or a rethink of that technical approach.

THE BOTTOM LINE: The ball does not fit the hall, true, but Assassins was still a killer sight to behold. The voices were awesome and the direction was motivated, intriguing, and kept me wanting more. The show is strange, funny, quick, and full of meaning behind the uncomfortable giggles of bawdy comedy. Once again the Stillpointe team does it for me, and that’s a hard feat to accomplish for Mr. A.H. [Totes! – TBO].

Running at The UB Student Center until November 7th (but check the Facebook page, the times are weird)

SECOND OPINION?

Email Achilles Feels at achillesfeels@gmail.com

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