In ‘Assassins,’ teenage performers take aim at political correctness

July 3, 2012

By Warren Kagarise

Jake Nicholson portrays the Balladeer (left) and Patrick Ostrander portrays assassin John Wilkes Booth in KIDSTAGE’s ‘Assassins.’ By Jean Johnson/Village Theatre

Some names live on in eternal infamy. John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald come to mind.

Others ended up relegated in history textbooks. Charles Guiteau and Leon Czolgosz faded into the footnotes.

Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Sara Jane Moore turned into comedians’ punch lines after botched assassination attempts.

The assassins — and wannabe assassins — of presidents occupy a strange place in U.S. history. The cadre is reviled and, in some cases, forgotten.

Not in “Assassins” — a Stephen Sondheim musical about the strange group. The show opens at Village Theatre’s First Stage Theatre on July 13.

The dark musical is the latest offering from KIDSTAGE, the long-running youth education program at Village Theatre.

The show is designed, directed and performed by high school and college-age students. Though professional mentors offer guidance, “Assassins” is managed from opening number to curtain call by student-actors in the program.

Director Katharine McClain, 20, said “Assassins” adds depth to figures remembered each for a lone, history-altering act.

“Coming into ‘Assassins,’ I didn’t want it ever to be about a bunch of people holding guns and shooting people,” she said.

Still, the subject makes for some strange moments onstage.

“Assassins” reaches a crescendo in a surreal sequence as the other assassins convince Oswald to murder President John F. Kennedy in order to secure a place in history.

The revue-style musical earned a cartful of Tony Awards, including Best Revival of a Musical, for a 2004 Broadway run starring Neil Patrick Harris as Oswald.

If you go

‘Assassins’

  • Village Theatre — First Stage Theatre
  • 120 Front St. N.
  • July 13-22
  • Showtimes vary
  • $16 to $18
  • 392-2202 or www.villagetheatre.org

The musical treats the titular characters as historical figures and not just as villains. The targeted presidents in “Assassins” appear behind masks to keep the focus on the assassins.

“It’s interesting to see how you can exaggerate but be careful not to be too politically incorrect at the same time,” said Tucker Goodman, 18, “Assassins” production manager and assistant director, and a recent Liberty High School graduate.

Guiteau shot President James Garfield in 1881 at a Washington, D.C., train station. Czolgosz shot President William McKinley in 1901 at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y.

McClain said “Assassins” offers tantalizing glimpses at other outcomes in history.

“If William McKinley had stayed president, what would have happened to America?” she asked. “Theodore Roosevelt, who is arguably one of the greatest presidents, would have never become a president, because he was such a redneck that nobody wanted to vote for him. He became this huge leader for us.”

The performers studied the tragedies and near-misses to understand the characters in the show. The 20-member cast ranges in age from 12 to 20.

“Our ‘Squeaky’ Fromme is 15, and every single day I forget that she’s not 27,” McClain said.

Village Theatre regular Katie Griffith portrays Fromme in the musical. Fromme, a follower of murderer Charles Manson, attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford in 1975. Moore attempted to assassinate Ford 17 days later.

The actor in the Guiteau role, Zach Barr, read the assassin’s book to learn about the character.

The timing of “Assassins” — in a presidential election year, mere months before Election Day — is also auspicious. The cast received a crash course in the history of presidential politics.

“That dedication is really just reflective of the entire cast,” McClain said. “There’s a huge amount of research happening every day.”

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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