Good theater makes a compelling statement, while great theater carries with it truths that stand the test of time. That’s the measuring rod that Mark Clements, artistic director for Milwaukee Repertory Theater, uses frequently.
Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins” – a musical revue featuring history’s most infamous U.S. presidential assassins – received mixed reviews when it first opened in 1990. But its characters’ search for sudden celebrity and the show’s celebration of the country’s growing gun culture has more relevance today than ever before, Clements says. The Rep opens its 2012-13 season Sept. 4 with the controversial work.
“In the 22 years since it was written, I believe that the statement the piece makes has grown in importance,” says Clements, who also is directing the production. “It’s deeply rooted themes force the audience to look into the mirror of our society, one which nurtures and maybe even encourages the kind of disenfranchised people we encounter in the show.”
The disenfranchised characters are many, and some are better known than others. From Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth to Kennedy’s killer Lee Harvey Oswald, from Charles Guitreau, who shot James Garfield, to Leon Czolgosz, who murdered William McKinley, the stage is occupied by social miscreants who believe their right to happiness includes license to kill a U.S. president. In fact, “Everybody’s Got the Right” is one of the show’s signature numbers.
The narrative structure is a series of vignettes built around the slim history that’s available about the characters. The book by Sondheim collaborator John Weidman, adapted from an original work by Charles Gilbert Jr., uses both fact and conjecture to good effect in what Clements describes as a complex work.
“It’s a very rich, very nuanced and very apt satire,” Clements says. “There are definitely elements of comedy in it, but there is so much more to it than that. It’s hard to label it as purely a dark comedy.”
Central to the show, which won five Tony Awards during its 2004 revival, are the guns used by the assassins. Jim Guy, prop master for the Milwaukee Rep, did a thorough search for the types and vintages of the actual weapons used in the crimes. Acquiring the weapons turned out to be easier than first thought.
“The Rep’s prop department actually had several of the harder-to-locate guns in stock from previous productions,” Guy says. “For the others I have been working through trusted vendors with whom I have been doing business for some time to locate or supply guns that duplicate or very closely resemble the ones noted in the script.”
The most difficult guns to replicate, he said, were the ones with which most of the audience is already familiar – the single-shot derringer with which Booth killed Lincoln and the bolt-action rifle used by Oswald to shoot Kennedy.
The Quadracci Powerhouse’s excellent acoustics allows Guy to load the weapons with less than full powder behind the blanks, which reduces the weapons’ recoil. Still, gun safety remains paramount in a production like “Assassins,” he says.
“Safety instruction is absolutely necessary every time a gun is used on stage because no two live performances are the same and nothing can be taken for granted,” says Guy, who teaches courses in firearms safety for the stage nationwide. “Before an actor touches a gun, the gun and ammunition undergo a series of tests in the shop and on the set to make sure that they are safe for the cast, crew and audience.”
As to the controversial final scene in which the assassins line up and fire their weapons into the audience, Guy is not tipping the director’s hand.
“The scene hasn’t been completely blocked yet, but serious discussion is already underway to make sure that the scene is absolutely safe for the audience and cast and generates the response that the director is after,” he says.
Regardless of how Clement’s version of the play ends, its themes ring true for the times, particularly following this summer’s mass shootings in Milwaukee’s Oak Creek suburb and in Aurora, Colo.
“No matter what your viewpoint on the right to have guns may be, the laws currently in place are not working,” Clements says. “Now is the perfect time to have a discussion about guns in our society, and I will be happy if ‘Assassins’ can be a catalyst for that conversation.”
The Rep’s season at a glance
“Assassins,” Sept. 4–Oct. 7
“The Diary of Anne Frank,” Oct. 23–Dec. 2
“Sense and Sensibility,” Dec. 11–Jan. 13
“Clybourne Park,” Jan. 29–Feb. 24
“A Raisin in the Sun,” March 12–April 14
“Gutenberg! The Musical!” Aug. 24–Oct. 14
“Blues in the Night,” Oct. 19–Dec. 23
“Mind Over Milwaukee,” Dec. 28–Feb. 24
“Ring of Fire,” March 1–May 5
“The Mountaintop,” Sept. 26–Nov. 4
“How the World Began,” Jan. 16–Feb. 24
“Rep Lab,” March 1-4
“A Christmas Carol,” Nov. 29–Dec. 24