MANSFIELD — Everybody's got a right to their dreams. But what happens when you think that right has been taken away from you?
In Stephen Sondheim's controversial musical "Assassins," the protagonists believe the logical next step is to kill a president.
This darkly humorous show presented at Theatre 166 follows nine misfit men and women who attempted (four of them successfully) to assassinate American presidents. Overwhelmingly, the musical attempts to show what can happen when the government is blamed for standing in the way of a disaffected citizen's pursuit of happiness.
It is undoubtedly one of Sondheim's most controversial work, opening off-Broadway in 1990 to many mixed and negative reviews. In a recent interview, Sondheim said the show explores how people sometimes confuse the right to happiness with the right to the pursuit of happiness.
“The show dares its audience to see our country and assess our national myths through the eyes of our villains instead of our heroes," he said. "How could one inconsequential angry little man cause such universal grief and anguish? More important, why would he? That’s what ‘Assassins’ is about.”
Director Michael Thomas has been fascinated with the piece since he first saw it in 1991.
“It’s an ingenious piece that delves into the darkest corners of American history," Thomas said. "It doesn’t ask you to have sympathy for the murderers, and it doesn’t attempt to defend their behavior. It simply and effectively provides its audience with each of the killer’s backstory – often disturbing and occasionally comical.”
It's also a piece that transforms against the background of today's divided political landscape.
"It does make you think about entitlement, what you think you're deserving of and what that means to you," said Caroline Grace Williams, who represents the American people as part of the ensemble. "Some of the dialogue from the assassins you might even relate to, which makes you feel weird because they were normal people that acted terribly.
"That's why I like theatre, because this is a very uncomfortable topic," she said. "You leave the theater a better person because you're challenged. And in a space like Theatre 166, there's something to be said about the intimacy of it. You cannot escape the message."
"Assassins" is the first show back in Theatre 166 since the pandemic. It was originally scheduled for the 2020-2021 season, but was cancelled due to the pandemic.
In addition to Williams, local cast members include Ryan Shreve as John Wilkes Booth, Scott Smith as Giuseppe Zangara, Beau Roberts as Sam Byke, Jacob Poiner as John Hinkley, Lori Turner as Emma Goldman, Joe Trolian as William McKinley, and George Swarn as David Herold, with Leah Gesouras, Christopher Hartman and Zakari Ramos.
Other guest actors, from all over Ohio, include Jacob Sustersic as Leon Czolgosz, Emily Bare as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, Stephanie Hayslip as Sarah Jane Moore, Niko Carter as the Proprietor, and Antonio Brown as the Balladeer/Lee Harvey Oswald. Thomas also makes an appearance in the role of Garfield assassin, Charles Guiteau.
"Assassins" culminates with its most harrowing scene, when Shreve delivers a mesmerizing performance as John Wilkes Booth and the other assassins visit Lee Harvey Oswald just moments before he fires his rifle at John Kennedy from the Texas School Book depository.
Brown, who portrays Oswald in the scene, acknowledged the scene is particularly poignant because it's the recent past — some audience members might still be able to recall where they were when they heard of Kennedy's assassination. While the show doesn't sympathize with Oswald, it does provide insight into his motivations.
"We have a responsibility as artists to portray these characters as they were — they were people, not cartoon characters," Brown said. "They fell into a point in their life where they felt like there was no better thing to do but to kill the president of the United States. And I think that's very harrowing for some people."
In the end, the assassins in the musical do live on in history — their final act serving as their "accomplishment in a weird morbid sense of the American dream," Brown said.
Scott Smith, who plays Franklin Delano Roosevelt's failed assassin Giuseppe Zangara, said the ultimate moment of the play is about not forgetting the forgotten.
"These were people that, to one degree or another, were not valued in the way they saw themselves," Smith said. "So they did was they did partially for recognition, partially looking for some sort of belonging, even if it is belonging to history."
"Assassins" premieres at Theatre 166 on Oct. 8 at 8 p.m. with additional performances on Oct. 9, 15 and 16 at 8 p.m. and Oct. 10 and 17 at 2:30 p.m. Parking for Theatre 166 is available in the Renaissance Theatre lot.
Due to the nature of the space, capacity at Theatre 166 is limited 100 seats. If you plan to attend, you’ll want to reserve your tickets in advance. For tickets to Assassins at Theatre 166, visit: https://bit.ly/AssassinsPR