You’ve got to hand it to Actors Cabaret of Eugene. As the name implies, ACE is a homespun purveyor of musical theater, and as such, the company could justifiably sit pat on trotting out a regular cycle of familiar, and therefore comforting and diverting, shows that tap the Broadway tradition. And that’s not a bad thing.
Every local theater has its niche. ACE’s wheelhouse is song and dance, bright lights and big choruses, which means that they would be not only forgiven but also applauded for feeding us a steady diet of escapism. It’s not a bad gig.
And yet, in times of devouring darkness, it can be argued that it becomes incumbent upon art, and artistic institutions, to respond in some vital way.
Now, it would be wrong to suggest that musical theater is inherently apolitical; it would be equally remiss, however, to fail to see the difference between, say, Cats and Cabaret. And ACE’s staging of Cabaret last year represented a high-water mark in local responses to fascist shenanigans. It registered like an alarm, a howl of disgust, and it was enervating to behold.
They’ve done it again. With Assassins, expertly directed by veteran Michael Watkins, ACE has scored another zinger — a well-cast, well-produced show that addresses, with equal parts humor and horror, the violence and dispossession at the heart of the American Dream. This Tony-winning musical, which first opened Off-Broadway in 1990, is timelier than ever.
Written by Stephen Sondheim, Assassins is a surreal carnival ride through American history, focusing on real-life presidential assassins (successful and failed) who gather together in a macabre shooting gallery to discuss the wildly diverse reasons for their crimes.
This premise oozes satire, suggesting as it does that assassination is a game, equal parts tragedy and farce. Rather than presenting a particular politics, Sondheim focuses on the rage that boils, in all its forms, beneath the American scene. Assassins is, in essence, a musical inferno: a vision of hell, full of lost souls who, in one way or another, speak for us all.
The cast is large because — goodness gracious — there have been more attempts on presidents than we tend to recall. Along with the usual suspects of Booth (Esack Grueskin), Oswald (Cody Mendonca) and Hinckley (Cameron Graham), we get a peek into the lives of Czolgosz (Kelly Oristano), Sara Jane Moore (Erica Jean) and Samuel Byck (Colin Gray), who plots to hijack a plane and fly it into the White House to kill Nixon.
The result of all these murderous malcontents’ intermingling is an absurdist inferno of dispossession and grievance. The sickness revealed is as spiritual as it is political. The musical numbers echo the sense of powerless and impotence at the heart of each assassin’s story, especially “Another National Anthem,” which yells “bullshit” to the one we’re so busy arguing about now.
ACE’s production strikes just the right balance between outrage and gallows humor, thanks in large part to strong performances across the board (Gray and Jean are especially fun to watch). Despite the weight of the subject matter, the show is buoyed by a sense of purpose — a moral clarity that stares right down the barrel of our social malaise.
Assassins is short on answers, as everybody is these days. But as a diagnosis of what ails America — a ghastly infection of alienation, materialism, divisiveness, guns and violence — it is bracing. — Rick Levin
Assassins runs through Oct. 6 at Actors Cabaret; $16-$49.95 (dinner included), tickets at 683-4368 or actorscabaret.org.