Assassins:a Kick-line of Killers

Helm Fine Art Center at St. Stephen's School,
through March 8
Running Time: 2 hrs, 30 min

Picture the pitch meeting. "Hey, I had this great idea to write a musical about all of the discontented nuts who have tried to kill a U.S. president." "And what would the story be?" "Story? Why do you need a story? I'm Stephen Sondheim." The producer drums his fingers on the desk for a few seconds then says, "Good point. I remember how nutty I thought the whole fairy tale concept was and that turned out to be a huge hit. How much do you want?" Out comes the checkbook and once again musical theatre history is made.

Unfortunately, the musical, Assassins, with book by John Weidman, doesn't come together quite as well as many of Sondheim's other forays into nontraditional musical territory. Assassins is more a series of rousing vignettes than a fully formed musical, which leaves you scratching your head and wondering why you should care about the motivations behind the actions of Hinckley, Fromme, Zangara, Moore, Byck, Oswald, Czolgosz, and Booth. Sure, the authors try to tie the whole thing together with a few rousing numbers about freaks as a force of history, as well as an alternate universe in which all the killers have a chat with Lee Harvey, but the concept just never makes it past the interesting-footnote-to-musical-theatre stage.

Despite the best efforts of all involved in this Rare Creations production, the experience can't rise above the material. Not surprising, really, since it is almost impossible to overcome an incomplete text unless you make an unethical deal with a theatre devil. Dennis L. Whitehead's direction and Frank Rendon, Jr.'s choreography sparkle, and both are full of crisp movements and snappy moments that are always dynamic. Whitehead could have done more to bring out the throughline of this script, but that may be a task that is similar to looking for the proverbial needle in the proverbial haystack. Perhaps the director and Jeff Griffin, Rare Creations' artistic director, would have been better served in choosing a musical that better showcased the talents of their incredible cast.

And it is quite a cast. Dan Sullivan, he of the lantern jaw and warm baritone, gives a stellar performance as John Wilkes Booth. He approaches the character with a smirk and a swagger that perfectly fits this actor turned murderer. As Sara Jane Moore, Katie Brock bubbles with talent, and her skill as a performer rises far above her character's skill as a would-be killer. Roxane Alexander's "Squeaky" Frommeand Hardy T Janson's Oswald never quite moveinto three dimensions, more a fault of the scriptthan the finely tuned efforts of the actors. David Welch does imbue Charles J. Guiteau with a vibrant, if carping and whiny, life while delivering his lines with finesse. Finally, Kyle J. Andrews as John Hinckley, Jody Clemmons as Guiseppe Zangara, and Russ Roten as Leon Czolgosz are delightful to watch because it is obvious they are having a wonderful time; their enthusiasm coupled with craft can't help but infect the audience.

While this kick-line of killers is a thrill, the pre-recorded music they sing over isn't. Part of the excitment of a musical is a backing band that can be influenced like an actor can, sensitive to the responses of an audience and prepared to check its pace if the communal mood warrants. Gone are these sensitive pauses, only to be replaced by a metronomic insistence that the words be sung right now, before the music passes by, despite a cast which could aptly handle the nuance of live musicians. The singers, in fact, become slaves to the tape, much like the story of Assassins becomes a slave to the authors' concept.

– Adrienne Martini


Movements Gallery,
through March 17

As fodder for art, perhaps no subject is more universal – and more open to subjective interpretation – than the human form. The past hundred years or so has seen the exploration of the human body reach dizzyingly complex levels, with movements such as abstraction and surrealism contorting and warping the physique to often unrecognizable degrees, with each technique offering a fresh concept of the human body's unique characteristics.

This ever-elusive quest to explore the seemingly infinite gesticulative qualities of the body brings us two wildly diverse interpretations by Chris Williams and Joshua Chalmers. Positioned on facing walls in Movements Gallery's high-ceilinged exhibition space, the figurative works of Williams and Chalmers are caught in a perpetual staring match – a silent duel, with one side symbolizing an intensely polished technique, the other a raw, unrefined one.

Williams' work is the polished contingent. His oil paintings of realistic humans in surreal situations – such as a person holding a baboon head in a lightning storm – are painstakingly detailed, down to the slight shadow cast by a tense collarbone or the intricacies of an earlobe.Monarch depicts a nude female, clutching a cloth to her breast, with material wrapped round her head turban-style. A brilliant monarch butterfly is spread across her forehead like a little amber sunrise. The woman's saffron-colored eyes are chillingly penetrating, oblivious or indifferent to the black smoke billowing into the scarlet-hued sky in the distance. The gradations and shadows in the work are wonderful, with a smooth airbrush quality.

In stark contrast to Williams' technically elaborate work is Chalmers' collection of paintings, which depict a more frenetic, unleashed interpretation of people and their environs. Chalmers often uses short, thick brushstrokes with excess paint to create a heavily textured, taffy-like surface, which adds a distinctive feeling of manic tension to the already highly charged paintings. Seated Woman depicts a female with a crazed look of panic in her huge Betty-Boop eyes, seeing something not altogether pleasant. The curves of her body are undefined, and her surroundings give no hint as to the context of her situation, yet the viewer gets a clear sense of her emotional urgency. The root of this feeling is not obvious; it's simply emitted by the work.

Although these artists' styles are drastically different, they are equally compelling; both are open to interpretation by the viewer, both elicit emotion. They are fitting exhibition partners, showing a vast spectrum of possibilities in interpreting the human body.

– Cari Marshall

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