Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins, on in 7th week at the O’Reilly, is a bold and alarming exploration of the dark side of the American Dream, presenting the lives of nine individuals who assassinated or attempted to assassinate the President of the United States. It is a revue-style show, in which the assassins or would-be assassins meet and interact across time, inspiring each other to commit harrowing acts.
With a cast of ten principle roles, eight male and two female, and seven ensemble members, one of my initial questions concerned the logistical difficulties of the rehearsal process.
“The show is actually really conducive to easy rehearsals because it is episodic in nature,” says producer Emily Lunnon. “You can therefore really focus on the individual characters in each episode and work on their scenes specifically.”
Despite its dark and disturbing subject matter, the rehearsals I saw also illustrated the black vein of humour that runs through the show. In the musical, Sondheim bends the rules of time so that the various assassins interact in a limbo-like reality where characters that would never have met in real life have extensive conversations. For instance, in the rehearsal I witnessed, two woman assassins, Sara Jane Moore (Blathnaid McCullagh) and Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme (Heloise Lowenthal), both of whom attempted to assassinate Gerald Ford, meet and discuss their various motivations for wanting to kill him. In reality, the two women never met. Mediating the episodes is a balladeer, played by Niall Docherty, who narrates the successful assassination attempts and provides a defence of the ideals with which the other characters in the play are so disillusioned.
“It is really important to create individual characters in each scene so we’ve relied heavily on Twenty First Century uses of projection,” director Silas Elliott tells me. “For instance, we have the stars and stripes projected onto the back of the set during the play as well as images of the presidents who are to be assassinated.”
The different positions occupied by the different characters in time and space is reflected in a set that has multiple levels. “I thought that Assassins would really appeal to a student audience. We’ve taken advantage of the space to emphasise the ways in which the different characters in the musical occupy different spaces in time. There is a large deck surrounding the stage in a corner of the theatre and we have a viewing gallery on which the presidents are arrayed at the start and at which the assassins shoot.” Silas clearly relishes the thought of taking advantage of the O’Reilly’s large auditorium. He tells me that he was partly inspired to put on the play after seeing a production of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd there last year.
Meanwhile, music director John Warner has been responsible for bringing to life the musical side of the production. Sondheim’s music is based around American themes, which are taken out of their original settings and placed in ironic, sarcastic contexts. The different episodes of the play are also reflected in the different musical styles, embodying the contrasting eras in which the assassinations or attempted assassinations took place.
From the rehearsals I witnessed, this promises to be an exciting, thought-provoking and darkly funny production of one of Sondheim’s more controversial musicals.