Sondheim's black comic musical about presidential killers and would-be killers gets a fantastic staging by Soubrette

Taking their shot at immortality: (l-r) Nathan Brockett as John Wilkes Booth, Aaron Glover as Charles Guiteau, Joseph Garlock as Leon Czolgosz, and Julia Lorenz-Olson as Sara Jane Moore
Taking their shot at immortality: (l-r) Nathan Brockett as John Wilkes Booth, Aaron Glover as Charles Guiteau, Joseph Garlock as Leon Czolgosz, and Julia Lorenz-Olson as Sara Jane Moore (Courtesy of Will Hollis Snider)

Boyd Vance Theatre at Carver Museum & Cultural Center, 1165 Angelina, 512/974-4926
Through Apr. 20
Running time: 1 hr., 50 min.

Playwright Romulus Linney claims that a play must be a dramatic event rather than a lyrical one. "It's not music, it's not poetry, it's not dance, it's not narrative," he says. "It's about conflict." Indeed, and what more visceral conflict is there than man against man – or more pointedly, that dark desire for another person's heart to literally cease beating in the wake of intentional violence? Although musicals and murder are not exactly strange bedfellows, Stephen Sondheim's and John Weidman's controversial Assassins sets itself apart as a black comedy.

While its subject matter – presidential assassinations, both successful and botched – is enough to make people squirm, beneath that surface this musical explores something even more insidious: the American obsession with individual recognition. "When you've got a gun," sings 19th century preacher-cum-killer Charles Guiteau, "everybody pays attention." Burrow deeper, and you'll find the play is, at its core, about idol worship in the land of the free. "Who's godless now?" screamed a recent Washington Times headline, "Russia says it's U.S." Yet we do have gods: They wield guitars, smile on magazine covers, hold court in the Oval Office. The impetus for violence is rooted in our ambivalence. Alas, we worship our deities but – as illustrated by Soubrette Productions' fantastic staging – resent them when they fail to be divine.

During one scene, each character has a chance to tell the audience why he or she "did it," and oddly enough, the most revealing reason comes from a character actor dressed as St. Nick: "I did it because there is no Santa Claus." The costuming may be a bit of overkill, but the image of wannabe Nixon assassin Sam Byck (expertly played by Robert Deike) and the symbolic nod to Nietzsche certainly lodges in the mind. As the rough-and-tumble proletarian activist from Philadelphia, Deike earns his stripes as a crowd favorite, along with Aaron Glover as the delightfully cuckoo Guiteau.

Director Philip Olson is to be applauded for his excellent casting, which results in some of the finest ensemble work I've seen on Austin stages. Meg Steiner and Julia Lorenz-Olson are a memorable comic duo as Manson groupie Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme and middle-aged mom Sara Jane Moore, respectively, who share a target (Gerald Ford) but are distinguished by dramatically different backgrounds and personalities.

Ia Ensterä's splendid set design features a rich array of textures that recall both vaudeville and – dominated by a sign advertising the Commander-in-Chief Shooting Gallery – a seedy county fair. Although there's nothing funny about the crumbling walls of Camelot, with Assassins we laugh to keep from crying. The humor here is born on the wings of absurdity. Byck's gorgeous world of "unicorns and waterfalls and puppy dogs" reminds us that the fantastic sometimes makes a cameo appearance in reality – and perhaps for those of us wishing to keep our wits about us, making that distinction is as critical as drawing the line between fame and infamy.

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Assassins, Austin theatre, Soubrette Productions, Philip Olson, Julia Lorenz Olson, Robert Deike, Aaron Glover, Meg Steiner

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