There are lots of reasons to like the Hunger Artists production of Assassins, Stephen Sondheim's musical about America's contributions to the long history of political whacks: it's directed clearly and cogently by Shannon C.M. Flynn. It's also impeccably cast, with some of the best actors from a range of the county's smaller theaters crammed into the cozy space. But, yeah, the show works because of the undeniable genius of Sondheim, a composer whose complicated melodies and intelligent, passionate lyrics are matched only by his fearless artistic choices.
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Assassinssticks out from the musical-theater pack like a two-legged man in a one-legged ass-kicking contest. Simply, it's a show featuring people who've tried to assassinate American presidents. There are the two big killer kahunas: John Wilkes Booth (an incredibly assured Mark Palkoner) and Lee Harvey Oswald (an equally convincing Michael Parillo). There's Leon Czolgosz, who nailed William McKinley, and a suitably disturbing Charles J. Guiteau, who capped James A. Garfield. There are also less successful members of this exclusive club, including wannabe Nixon murderer Sam Byck, played by hilariously bipolar Howard Patterson.
Their personalities are wildly divergent, but what they share, at least in Sondheim and librettist John Weidman's treatment, is a collective desire to redeem their own shattered self-images by offing the leader of the most egotistical and self-aggrandizing country on Earth. Booth is fueled by bad reviews, a fading career and Lincoln's systematic dismantling of the American South. Oswald is a victim of the KGB—and his heartless wife.
Personalizing this most impersonal crime—shooting a president isn't shooting an individual as much as it's shooting a symbol for the most symbolic nation on the planet—isn't just out of the theatrical mainstream; it ranks among the ballsiest artistic choices this side of the Tower of Babel. That this Hunger Artists production rings as true as it does should likewise be filed as one of the most daring choices of a company that has never resisted venturing into unfamiliar, dangerous territory.
Assassins at the Hunger Artists Theatre, 699-A S. State College Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 680-6803. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7:30 p.m. Through Aug. 1. $15-$18.