September 17th, 2012

Milwaukee Rep: "Assassins"

Saturday night the 15th, we went to see The Rep's new production of Steven Sondheim's "Assassins," and found it excellent—although it's hard to say that this still-edgy musical is entirely "enjoyable" due to its subject matter.

We had seen the show before, almost twenty years ago, in an impressive local production by the Bay View Players, and found it powerful then. The Milwaukee Rep's production, based on the 2004 Broadway revision, has the advantages of a professional cast and elaborate mounting, but doesn't really manage to add much more to the drama and black humor inherent in the script.

Adam Monley leads the cast as John Wilkes Booth, the first American political assassin, and, ironically, the one with the most rational motives. With passions raised by the long and deadly Civil War, Booth's hatred of Lincoln as an enemy is at least comprehensible, and his hope that his act will lead to the collapse of the government at least rational, if unrealistic.

This can't be said for the coterie of loons and losers that come after him, some of whom can hardly be said to have any idea what they wanted to accomplish other than, as the Carnival Proprietor (Jonathan Gillard Daly) proposes, taking out their frustrations. Perhaps the most sympathetic of the others is Leon Czolgosz (Steve French). French's beautiful rich bass voice adds pathos to Czolgosz's psyche, tortured by his brutal working conditions that he sees replicated everywhere in the country (“The Ballad of Czolgosz” and “The Gun Song”, are two of the most affecting songs in the show.) But even he doesn't articulate why or how he thinks killing William McKinley will make anything better. The megalomaniacal Charles Guiteau (Mark Price) shoots James Garfield more in a fit of pique than anything else. And then we have the comic relief provided by the 1970's wanna-be assassins, Lynnette "Squeaky" Fromme (Sarah Litzinger), Sara Jane Moore (Caroline O'Connor), and Samuel Byck (Lee E. Ernst). The lengthy but funny and profane dialog between Fromme and Moore never happened, but should have. What's amazing is that Fromme, who describes herself as Charles Manson's "lover and slave" comes off as slightly less crazy than Moore, who is played for broad laughs as a total incompetent. (In fact, Moore came much closer than Fromme to actually harming Gerald Ford: she actually got a shot off, narrowly missing, and testimony indicated that had she not been using a newly purchased gun, could well have killed the President.) Byck's rants, based on tape-recordings he made, are both funny and frightening, since they are so close to the kind of tirades you can read on the Internet or hear on the street any day. It's only fine gradations of madness that distinguish Czogolz, who had serious issues to complain about, from Byck, whose grievances include being served a cold hamburger.*

The show culminates with Booth and the other past and future assassins persuading Lee Harvey Oswald (Chris Peluso) to vindicate them and his own dead-end life by shooting John F. Kennedy. They all raises voices (and guns) in the subtle wrongness of "Everyone's Got The Right To Be Happy," the assassins' anthem.

The production is impressively mounted with the stage framed as a carnival shooting gallery with a macabre "Kill a President" theme. The rest of the set is dominated by a framework set on a double turntable that stands in for everything from Ford's Theatre to the Texas Book Depository, including the scaffolds where some of the assassins themselves die.

Again, an excellent performance, moving, frightening, and frequently darkly funny. "Assassins" continues at the Powerhouse Theatre through October 7th.

(* It's astonishing that Byck is so obscure. In his 1974 attempt to hijack an airliner to crash into the White House and kill Richard Nixon, he killed two people, a police officer and a pilot, wounded another, and killed himself after being wounded in a gunfight with police. Both the FAA and Secret Service took note of the attempt, which makes Condoleeza Rice's remarks after 9/11/2001 to the effect that no one had considered the possibility of using airliners as weapons even more unbelievable. (Moreover, Tom Clancy's 1994 novel "Debt of Honor" and Dale Brown's 1994 "Storming Heaven," use similar scenarios--.)

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Farewell, My Queen

Sunday afternoon, September 16th, we went to the Oriental Theatre to see the movie, "Farewell. My Queen" ("Les Adieux a la Reine"). This movie, set in the early days of the French Revolution, gives a rarely seen perspective on the events, that of the regime's loyal followers and servants—gentry privileged to serve the Queen closely, but not the great nobility, nor the commoners. The viewpoint character, Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux) is a well-born orphan who is "the servant of the Queen's books" or the Queen's reader, whose main task is to read aloud to Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger) when she desires that sort of amusement. Although essentially a lady-in-waiting, Sidonie is subordinate to the older ladies with grander jobs, and lives in a room in the dingy and neglected backstairs of Versailles, only distinguishable from the commoner servants in that she has a room to herself.

We also see that Sidonie has a serious crush on the beautiful Queen, who, herself, has an apparently homoerotic fixation on the Duchess de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen).

The movie begins the morning after the storming of the Bastille, and it is interesting to see how the news percolates into the insular worlds of the royal enclave, where news and gossip are sought after and the stuff with which favors are purchased. Sidonie and her class are not privy to the great decisions of state, but can only try to ride with the emotional upheavals of rumor and the physical upheavals of the royal family's indecision as to whether or not to leave Versailles, and if so, to where.

This is a rather low-keyed film, since it ends before "The Terror" and the Queen's death, but concentrates more on the day-to-day life of the denizens of Versailles, which is fascinating. We see at night the vast State Rooms empty and dark, while the servant's quarters are a busy thoroughfare teeming with both the noble and the common, some seeking reassurance, and some seeking the titillation of uncertainty.

The film is handsomely mounted if somewhat subdued, which seems more realistic than the costume spectaculars that movies of this period frequently turn into. We see much more of the Queen's bedroom and the backstairs than the ballroom, and much more of the Queen en dishabille than in her grand gowns, and of these, the one we see most of is more casual than the elaborate affairs usually portrayed. From a costume aspect, the outfits worn by Sidonie and the other waiting women are most interesting.

A very interesting portrayal of a familiar time from an unfamiliar viewpoint. In French, with English subtitles. Some nudity, no bad language, and, surprisingly, no violence since all that takes place off camera out of the characters' view.

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