ASSASSINS Hits Target, Wins Prize at PlayMakers Repertory Company

Attention must be paid to PlayMakers' ASSASSINS. L to R: Jeffrey Meanza as Charles Guiteau, Maren Searle as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, Gregory DeCandia as Leon Czolgosz and Joseph Medeiros as Guiseppe Zangara. Photo: Jon Gardiner for PRC.

Attention must be paid to PlayMakers’ ASSASSINS. L to R: Jeffrey Meanza as Charles Guiteau, Maren Searle as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, Gregory DeCandia as Leon Czolgosz and Joseph Medeiros as Guiseppe Zangara. Photo: Jon Gardiner for PRC.

Musicals aren’t my first favorite form of theatre, and probably won’t ever be, but PlayMakers Repertory Company has been steadily eroding my prejudices with the seductive pleasures of its annual large-cast musical productions. Assassins, this year’s blow-out (through April 20), happens to also be a ferociously comic consideration of American gun culture, where the assassin or would-be assassin of a President gains the summit of social and historical notoriety. For PlayMakers, it continues the theatrical exploration begun in January, with the PRC-commissioned The Story of the Gun by Mike Daisey. The Stephen Sondheim/John Weidman musical Assassins, directed here by Mike Donahue, first played in 1990, and in some ways the show’s killers seem almost quaint–hapless and endearing, even–compared to today’s suicide bombers. In other ways, the show seems au courant, as when Jeffrey Blair Cornell as Sam Byck talks about flying a 747 into the White House to kill Dick Nixon. The script is rich with 20th century social, political and artistic references (e.g. Death of a Salesman) and may mean the most to people who already have some familiarity with a few 20th century Presidents and the assorted characters who took up guns to kill them, but you needn’t know a thing to have a good time.

Non-linear space-time in PRC's ASSASSINS: Patrick Mchugh as Lee Harvey Oswald (L) AND Danny Binstock as John Wilkes Booth. Photo: Jon Gardiner for PRC.

Non-linear space-time in PRC’s ASSASSINS: Patrick McHugh as Lee Harvey Oswald (L) and Danny Binstock as John Wilkes Booth. Photo: Jon Gardiner for PRC.

Assassins foregoes a straightforward storyline in favor of a collection of robust vignettes and songs  that collectively make a potent stew of satire, cynicism, pity and politics, floating in a gravy of dark humor. It foregoes the constraints of linear time altogether, freely bringing together people of different eras–John Wilkes Booth appears before Lee Harvey Oswald, for instance. The characters and stories are provoked, tempted, drawn on and catered to by the Balladeer (Spencer Moses) and the Proprietor, played by Ray Dooley. Dooley has not been onstage enough this season, and it’s wonderful to see him do his magic, imbuing his very footsteps with menace. His smile as he offers guns guns guns glitters with Mephistophelean knowledge. I had never seen a production of this show previously, and was skeptical that this stuff would really be funny–but I laughed often and loudly, between chills.

Maren Searle (L) as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Julie Fishell as Sara Jane Moore in PlayMakers ASSASSINS. Photo: Jon Gardiner for PRC.

Maren Searle (L) as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Julie Fishell as Sara Jane Moore in PlayMakers ASSASSINS. Photo: Jon Gardiner for PRC.

Julie Fishell is hilarious as Sara Jane Moore, who tried, sort of, to assassinate President Gerald Ford, and she and Maren Searle as Squeaky Fromme are priceless together. Jeffrey Blair Cornell channels Al Pacino and gives a fantastic performance as Sam Byck, a once-employed and self-respecting man, now an out-of-work Santa who just can’t see anything else to do besides try to kill the President. When we first see him, he’s wearing his Santa suit and a 3-day beard. He strips off his jacket to reveal a singleton undershirt and sits down with his lunch and a tape recorder to record a rambling letter to Lenny Bernstein, his hero, before he heads of to commandeer that 747.

Even he is upstaged by Jeffrey Meanza, who steals the show each time he appears as Charles Guiteau, the charming crazy con man who killed President Garfield. Meanza, whose day job is as assistant artistic director of PlayMakers, sings and carries on to beat the band, and his dancing! Choreographer Casey Sams has him skipping and bowing all over the stage in a charming and most amusing fashion. That band is pretty hard to beat, too. Mark Hartman on piano leads another nine musicians as the brass-rich group plays throughout the show far upstage in Rachel Hauck’s dark and flashy set that combines carnival, cabaret and Manganyar Seduction.

Assassins has a great tag line from itself: “Everybody pays attention when you’ve got a gun.” No doubt about it.

L to R: Julie Fishell as Sara Jane Moore, Danny Binstock as John Wilkes Booth, Jeffrey Meanza as Charles Guiteau and Gregory DeCandia as Leon Czolgosz, in PRC's ASSASSINS. Photo: Jon Gardiner for PRC.

L to R: Julie Fishell as Sara Jane Moore, Danny Binstock as John Wilkes Booth, Jeffrey Meanza as Charles Guiteau and Gregory DeCandia as Leon Czolgosz, in PRC’s ASSASSINS. Photo: Jon Gardiner for PRC.

Sublime Mystery: Cloud Gate Dance Theatre’s “Songs of the Wanderers,” at Carolina Performing Arts

The first time I saw Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan was in the 1990s, when the American Dance Festival presented founder and choreographer Lin Hwai-min’s Songs of the Wanderers (1994) in Page Auditorium. This visually spectacular 90-minute meditation on spiritual questing, bodily joy and suffering, stillness and transformation, is one of those rare artworks that live on in one’s soul, sending up vividly remembered sequences through the murk of consciousness as one continues one’s own journey. It is the kind of thing that you leave the theater feeling profoundly grateful to have experienced. To have had the opportunity to see it again–it was like winning the lottery. The odds were against it. But on April 2, Carolina Performing Arts gave us old-timers the big prize of a second chance, while introducing hundreds more to this beautiful dance. In addition to adding another star to CPA’s crown of achievements, the successful return of this hugely-scaled and hugely expensive performance to this area speaks clearly of the growing audience here for dance-theatre of the highest caliber. Memorial Hall sold out.

An instant from Songs of the Wanderers, by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan. Photo courtesy Carolina Performing Arts.

An instant from Songs of the Wanderers, by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan. Photo courtesy Carolina Performing Arts.

Inspired by the life of the Buddha, and its telling in Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, as well as Lin Hwai-min’s own instinctive and cultivated understanding of movement’s necessity to the body and the soul, Songs of the Wanderers takes us on the journey of Life, signified by the 3 and one-half tons of golden rice that rains onto the stage, some of it falling onto the head of a monk who remains motionless under its fall as it piles up to his knees. The dance is full of struggle and surprise, unrestrained sensuality, and reverence. Order meshes with chaos. Golden light stabs across the patterns, and carves through the velvet dark revealing groups of bodies in new actions and arrangements. The dancers of Cloud Gate are among the most controlled and sinuous in the world, and can move slowly or with explosive speed through a lyric of motion where rigid angles are made to rhyme with fluid curves, and delicate flutters embellish large actions. Here they move to chanted Georgian folk songs. Although that looks odd in print, the combination is excellent in action. Lin Hwai-min’s multiculturalism is the real thing.

After the dance culminates with a ritual involving bowls of fire, veiled women and ecstatic whirling, and the dancers have left the stage, another dancer who has come and gone through the rice with his huge long-handled rake returns to form the rice into a spiral covering the stage, as if he were grooming a golden Zen garden. As engrossing and absorbing and thrilling as the ensemble dancing is, this focused act takes you another step towards nirvana, and its resulting beauteous form releases something in the chest, some block to joy. You breathe deeply, and smell the rice, raised up in golden ridges–here for but a moment, here forever.

YouTube video from Songs of the Wanderers

My June 2003 review of Cloud Gate at ADF

My September, 2007 review of Cloud Gate at Carolina Performing Arts

My October, 2011 review of Cloud Gate at Carolina Performing Arts

My July, 2013 post on Lin Hwai-min accepting ADF’s Scripps Award, with comments on the dance that followed 

The Guardian‘s February, 2014 review of new work, RICE, performed in London

Leviathan’s 21st century AMADEUS at Common Ground Theatre

John Jimerson as Salieri in Leviathan's production of AMADEUS. Photo: Jaybird O'Berski.

John Jimerson as Salieri in Leviathan’s production of AMADEUS. Photo: Jaybird O’Berski.

The very considerable local theatrical talent in Durham is in a constant state of flux with groups forming or re-forming for specific purposes from the same pool of players, designers and managers, who vagabond from stage to stage. Well-known local actor John Jimerson is now also managing director of Leviathan Theatre Company, and his company is currently presenting Peter Shaffer’s 1979 Amadeus, with Jimerson in the role of Antonio Salieri. As edited and staged by Leviathan and director Jaybird O’Berski, the play digs into some of art’s difficult realities even as it explores the fraught relations between two men struggling for success in 18th-century musical Vienna.

Poor Salieri, a Catholic who thinks he’s made a deal with God, is happy with his life as a court composer–until the spoiled, obscene young genius Amadeus Mozart blazes into town, and Salieri knows himself as a mediocre hack. He is, however, a hack with some power, and he thwarts Mozart at every turn while pretending to be his friend. Mozart, half-mad and alone, dies at 35 while writing his great Requiem; Salieri lives long with his guilt. Shaffer has taken some liberties with the the lives of these men. His story is not altogether about them, but uses them to expatiate on the disjunct between moral behavior and output of artistic greatness, and on the relationship between passion and art. It’s about the power of jealousy and the meanness of power; and, perhaps, about the fruitlessness of dealmaking with any god that would stoop to such a thing. Jimerson does a good job with both the man and the philosophizing, especially with the core speech about realizing the paucity of his work in relation to Mozart’s. In a number of places, he and O’Berski have placed the emphasis so that one is steered toward the big ideas and away from the bathos and comedy.

Mozart is played here by Jade Arnold, who sports thick white make-up, a surprising wig, and body-covering costumes (excellent costuming by Chelsea Kurtzman). Arnold has been impressive in previous shows, but here in full whiteface disguised as a white man behaving badly, he is astonishing. Whether the full disguise is to credit, or director O’Berski, or simply the natural growth of an actor, I don’t know, but Arnold just kicks it out here, abandoning previously observed mannerisms and tricks of timing to produce a fresh and heart-churning interpretation of this role. Naturally, considering the creative parties involved, he has to do some fairly ridiculous stuff on stage and make it matter. Prime example here is his straight-faced singing of  a reconciliation song with his wife Costanze (Molly Forlines, voluptuous and nasty) derived from such a song in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro–but done here like an alt-country duet. The singing was delightful, and the cognitive dissonance at the sight, even better.

Jade Arnold as Mozart in Leviathan's AMADEUS, at Common Ground Theatre. Photo: Jaybird O'Berski.

Jade Arnold as Mozart in Leviathan’s AMADEUS, at Common Ground Theatre through April 12. Photo: Jaybird O’Berski.

The rest of the cast is strong. Tony Perucci is completely fabulous as Kasier Joseph II–so languid in his power and petulance, and so weighted by the enormity of his antler crown that he can barely move. Trevor Johnson, Liam O’Neill and Laurie Wolf each make an indelible impression as the counts and barons of the court. Salieri is attended by two “venticelli” played with mystery and alacrity by Caitlin Wells and Carly Prentiss Jones. Their make-up is particularly strong.

The visual aspects of this production take it far out of the ordinary. The extensive use of bold make-up and overstated wigs, sometimes augmented with intriguing masks by newcomer Wil Deedler, in combination with Kurtzman’s high-impact costuming, makes any set superfluous. The back wall of the small stage space at Common Ground Theatre has been removed to allow us to peer into the backstage murk, and to see the ladder Tony Perucci, as the Kaiser, must negotiate between his aerie and the stage floor. Other than that, there are a few props and chairs, and R.S. Buck’s smart lighting. The only technical deficiency is the sound. It is always difficult to hear in that space when it is undressed, but on the 29th there was some kind of feedback issue with some of the miked sound, and the equipment available to play Mozart’s music was inadequate to the task. However, when the actors spoke unmiked, they were all very clear, and used their voices to strong emotional effect.

I squeezed into the show by the skin of my teeth last Saturday–it sold out. I expect word-of-mouth will make tickets scarce for the remainder of the run (through April 12), so make reservations before going out to Common Ground for this imaginative revival of a multi-layered play.


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