Friday, May 27, 2016

An Open Letter to the Cast of "Assassins"

I want to try and say what’s in my heart about this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity I’ve had to be a part of the “Assassins” team. Heh. That doesn’t sound quite right, but so be it.

At the beginning of this week, I did not know how I was going to survive it. Three to four rehearsals a week suddenly became eight straight days of rehearsals/performances for Buck Creek’s production of “Assassins.” However, as the week progressed, the evenings spent at the Buck Creek Playhouse became the highlight of my day. I think I will never grow tired of watching this incredible show.

Did I mention I was the assistant director for this show? I use that term loosely. I’m the Joe Biden of the team. Scott Robinson is a one-man directing phenomenon, the alpha and the omega of the stage; actors clamber to work with him because he is king. He no more needs me there than Batman needs Robin. But in his graciousness, he took me on as an intern, an apprentice, and gave me the incredible gift of permission to sit at the right hand of the master.

There are not enough words to thank him for this humbling and life-changing experience of being a part of this incomparable show. What he assembled for “Assassins” has to be one of the most gifted collective of actors ever to grace a stage. Truly, after watching these eight weeks, I cannot make up my mind as to who is the strongest performer in the show. 

Is it Scott as Giuseppe Zangara, whose hatred wafts over the audience like a hot desert wind during “How I Saved Roosevelt”? Or is his best moment when he sneers his way through difficult Italian phrases or when he thrusts his gun into the air with the others on “Another National Anthem”?

Is it Trenton as John Hinckley Jr. whose young adult angst is painful to watch? I actually feel sorry for him as he’s mercilessly bullied by the Squeaky Fromme character. He sings a duet with Stacia (Squeaky) which has got to be one of the unsung high points of the performance. His character sings to Jodie Foster and hers sings to Charlie Manson and they have delivered it flawlessly night after night. It has the stuff of a top-40 love ballad and you can get caught up in the pain and yearning of the lyrics, until you remember the creepiness of their fixations.

Stacia as the aforementioned Squeaky:  even as a background character in some of the scenes, her presence on the stage draws your eye. The tension between the conflicted characters is palpable; you can see it and you can smell it; and then you see her inhaling it like secondhand smoke, like an intoxicating gas and then she clearly thrives on it. For Squeaky, if there is strife in the room, all is right with the world.

Cathy as the inept Sarah Jane Moore:  she and Stacia are, yes, the comic relief in a show called “Assassins.” She has an innate understanding of her role in this show. Her Midwestern twang, nuanced line delivery and facial expressions in reaction to Hulen’s Manson-obsessed treatises will steal the show.

Mark IS John Wilkes Booth -- the wig, the ‘stache, the coat, the GLOVES. The resemblance is remarkable. He is capable of taking the audience from disgust to empathy to respect even, for singing out his heartfelt indictment of Abraham Lincoln. His velvety vocals, his rapid-fire delivery, finally, and finally, his smoothly chilling handling of Lee Harvey Oswald in the Book Depository is enough to induce stress dreams.

Luke:  throughout the show, he plays the Balladeer, a calm and reasonable voice to challenge the persuasive Proprietor, played by Steven Linville, as if he were a carnival barker in a Stephen King book. How can this gentle person play this evil person so convincingly? More nightmares.

But back to Luke… When the ensemble parts and exits, you suddenly see the Balladeer, no longer in his good-natured woodsman’s flannel shirt. Suddenly, he is in a vaguely recognizable, plain white t-shirt, in a room surrounded by cardboard boxes. As the location of the scene slowly dawns on the over-50 crowd, you can cut the tension with a knife. Booth and the rest of the assassins sooth Oswald’s conscience and play to his need for recognition – and when Squeaky does the honors (you see on her face that she is VERY honored) of handing over the Mannlicher-Carcano, the audience will hold its breath. It is touch and go for a moment, and when Oswald finally accepts the rifle, we are dismayed, almost as if our silent collective of ‘no…no…don’t’ could actually change history.

Jake’s portrayal of the forgotten Leon Czolgosz and Daniel’s crazed reenactment of Sam Byck:  they both represent the common man in this show, so don’t be shocked when you realize that you totally understand their points of view. McDuffee’s melodic bass voice adds much to the harmonies and you can feel his disappointment in the only life he’ll ever have in his moments of silent brooding. As for Byck, be grossed out all you want by the filthy wife-beater t-shirt he wears under his Santa suit, but he’s right. He’s 100% right. Who DO we believe? And yes, we ARE scared. And what can we do about it? One can’t help but think of the chaos of the 2016 election cycle as bits of greasy French fry particles fly from his mouth during his diatribe and stick to the microphone of his tape recorder. He delivers a magnificently brilliant performance and never once loses the crazed look in his eyes.

One of my favorite parts of the show is watching David, as Charles Guiteau, react to Squeaky’s explanation of why lipstick is red. It’s just a small moment, but it speaks to the dedication of Wood to his craft. Another actor would have pulled a horrified face and gone for the laugh, but I’ve seen the seriousness of Wood’s approach to character as he walks through his part pre-performance every night. As he listens to her rambling about the cancerous guts of mice, his expression changes – without moving his face. No really. I detect no movement, yet his expression before, and then after, is noticeably different. His irrepressible Guiteau is likable to the end, in his dapper hat and suit coat, albeit with no shoes (a factual detail). He tries to woo Sarah Jane Moore, and impress Byck with his toast. He sings and dances to the gallows and we are sad and horrified at the sound of his neck snapping.

Finally, I am even in awe of the ensemble: Michael, Jessica, Logan, Bryan and Mary. Their animated performance as members of the crowd is so wonderful that you truly don’t know whom to watch. The assortment of expressions, gestures and behind the action vignettes is highly entertaining. I’ve taken to smiling throughout their numbers and I’m glad I’ve gotten to see the show so many times because while watching Jessica and Bryan, I miss what Mary, Michael and Logan are doing. If I’m watching Mary, Michael and Logan, then I miss what Jessica and Bryan are doing. I’m just glad I was there when Bryan lifted Jessica into the air so she could more easily see and be seen. Bahahaha!

So. It’s been an incredible ride. And I can’t thank everyone enough for taking me in to the Buck Creek family, talking to me, listening to my small notes, and – tee-hee – Friending me on Facebook. Words can’t express how honored I am to be a part of this production. I can’t wait to watch it again tonight—and eight more times after that. Mostly, I can’t WAIT to see the audience’s reaction.  And I very much hope they understand that they are seeing more than a musical – so much more. Break a leg tonight, guys.

With love and respect---


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