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The early 1990s, when Assassins—Stephen Sondheim’s trigger-happy ode to a couple of successful President-slayers and a few more also-rans—appeared Off Broadway and then in London and then at Signature Theatre, where it has just opened again, were boom times for guns. Police departments across the U.S. were combating a decades-long upswing in violent crime by replacing the six-shot revolvers they’d issued for more than 50 years with semi-automatics that allowed officers to fire 12, 15, or even 18 rounds without reloading. During that decade, D.C.’s police department became the deadliest in the nation, killing more people per resident than law enforcement agencies in New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago. So many of these shootings were accidental, and so many of those were blamed on the comparatively light trigger pull required to discharge the Glock 19 pistol that replaced the old revolvers, that the entire force was retrained.
That was before police killings of unarmed black people were broadcast on the internet. It was also before reality TV gave emotionally unstable attention seekers like the ones who populate Assassins a natural habitat in which to thrive. Most importantly, that was before killing sprees made possible by the ready availability of assault rifles, never mind high-capacity handguns, became the dominant means by which deranged people expressed themselves through violence. We live under the most despised president in U.S. history, and yet the very notion of assassination feels quaint. The sort of people who used to try to kill presidents now shoot up Walmarts and outdoor music festivals.
All of which is a very long way of saying that however provocative Assassins might’ve felt a generation ago, it’s a museum piece now—more so than Sondheim and book writer John Weidman, expanding on an idea they got from Charles Gilbert Jr., meant for it to be. Even allowing for the show’s Brechtian insularity, it still needs a rethink for the chaotic world it essentially predicted, one that Signature artistic director Eric Schaeffer hasn’t given it.
The show’s second Signature production, which Joe Calarco directed in 2006, felt more contemporary than this one. Its set was a row of bleachers, inviting the audience to look, in effect, at itself. In the current version, designed by James Kronzer, the cast performs in front of a rotting wooden facade. Stage left, there’s a replica of the balcony that John Wilkes Booth lept from after shooting President Abraham Lincoln in 1865.
The production’s lack of specificity is most readily seen in its weapons. The nine principal characters wield pistols in every scene, fire them frequently, and occasionally point them at the audience. Charles Manson acolyte Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, played by Rachel Zampelli, is armed with what looked to me like a Beretta 92, a pistol that didn’t become commonplace until about a decade after Secret Service Agents tackled the real-life Fromme for pointing a much older handgun, a Colt Model 1911, at President Gerald Ford. The show isn’t going for historical accuracy, of course, nor is it trying to tell anything like a linear story. John Hinckley Jr., who shot President Ronald Reagan outside the Washington Hilton in 1981, is in it (and is played beautifully by an unrecognizable Evan Casey), for example, but the show climaxes with Lee Harvey Oswald firing out the window of the Texas Schoolbook Depository in Dallas, 17 years earlier.
Even so, giving one wannabe killer a recognizably anachronistic handgun while all the ones who came before and after her strut around with revolvers less closely identifiable to a specific era feels careless, especially in a show that finds the clearest expression of its core idea in a number called “Gun Song.” Had Schaeffer directed his props department to arm his cast with assault rifles, that might’ve been update enough to make Signature’s second 21st century Assassins feel touched by the horrors of the 21st century.
The cast is strong. Zampelli is marvelous as Fromme, channeling menace and hippie dissipation in equal measure. (It’s not a fair comparison, but she’s more dimensional than Dakota Fanning is as Fromme in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.) Vocal powerhouse Tracy Lynn Olivera is appealingly insane as Ford’s other wannabe killer, Sara Jane Moore, and Bobby Smith is heartbreaking as Charles Guiteau, hanged for killing President James Garfield in 1882.
The other standout performer is Vincent Kempski as the haunted-eyed Booth, the man whose flamboyance set a standard to which all other would-be POTUS killers have aspired. He was, after all, an actor.
To Sept. 29 at 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. $40–$110. (703) 820-9771. sigtheatre.org.