Once again, Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va., has reimagined an existing work of musical theater in a way that casts a new and unexpected light on the work. Director Joe Calarco’s environmental staging of Assassins brings the presidential assassins of Stephen Sondheim’s 1990 fantasia, with book by John Weidman, literally face to face with the theater’s audiences.
The audience at Signature’s bare-bones theater sit on folding chairs set on risers; the wide aisles allow free access by the cast, and audience members are warned that late seating and re-entering the auditorium during the performance are not permitted. The always imaginative James Kronzer has designed a set that uses an enormous, stylized American flag as a show curtain, and otherwise defies description.
In Calarco’s vision, the assassins and their cohorts never leave the stage. They perform for each other as much as they do for the audience, and sometimes earn the appreciative applause of their peers. Karma Camp’s understated choreography and a well-rehearsed orchestra led by Jon Kalbfleisch enhance the insular nature of the production, as does Tony Angelini’s atmospheric sound design.
Out of a strong ensemble, several familiar Signature performers stand out: Will Gartshore, dashing and dominating as John Wilkes Booth; Erin Driscoll, a delightfully ditzy Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme; Stephen Gregory Smith as two different everyman characters, the skeptical Balladeer and a Lee Harvey Oswald beaten down by life; and Donna Migliaccio, returning to the role of Sara Jane Moore, which she previously played for Signature in the 1992-93 season, portraying her as a lost soul who manages to be both achingly funny and deeply sad at the same time. The weakest link is Matt Conner, who affects an annoying whine as John Hinckley.
New and less familiar faces also add to the overall impact. Mika Duncan plays Charles Guiteau, assassin of James Garfield, as manic and flirtatious rather than bombastic, and he’s capable of high kicks out of a Warner Brothers cartoon. Andy Brownstein makes a meal of his two monologues as Samuel Byck, the sad sack who plans to kill Richard Nixon by hijacking a plane and crashing it into the White House. (While this sounds like an allusion to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Byck actually attempted this plan at BWI Airport in 1974.)
Chris Lee’s lighting design takes in the audience area as well as the stage, shifting and changing color as the mood changes from dark comedy to grim seriousness. Anne Kennedy’s costumes comment on the characters, from Fromme’s hippie halter top and Indian skirt to Booth’s brocade vest.
The Signature Theatre