Javeenbah Theatre’s production of ‘Assassins’ slunk onto the stage like a thief in the night. Offering friendship and camaraderie to the unheard, the unloved, and the unstable. A ‘revuesical’ by Stephen Sondheim that examines the intertwining lives and legends of anyone who has, or has ever tried, to kill a President of the United States. ‘Assassins’ presents audiences with a paradox – an illogically logical knot of characters, where time has no meaning, and you have no trouble believing that John Wilkes Booth is having a cheerful conversation with Lee Harvey Oswald.
Director Katie Grace has assembled a cast that brought a singular focus and intent to the stage while performing. Designing a multi-levelled set that evoked feelings of a 1960s carnival game, where rows of ducks could be shot at for points, she captured the cartoonish feel of the show. Grace captured the real underlying theme of the production, that of loneliness and isolation, of wanting to be a part of something bigger than yourself. There were genuine moments between the ensemble that you could feel the desperation and anxiety of these souls lost to their own darkness, and that is a credit to Grace’s understanding of the storyline.
The entrance on the topmost rostrum and a single stage level doorway served as the only real way in or out, and Grace used these to keep the show marching forward smoothly. The space was used well, and allowed each cast member to clamber all over it as they spun out their own grim story for us.
The set design, for all of its simplicity, was consistently engaging, and for those observant enough to catch it, there were some beautiful easter eggs littered amongst the posters. The concept worked equally well with the costume’s created by Christine McLachlan, Gillian-Eva Butcher and Gillian Crow. The costuming was again simple, but neat and together. Representing a high overall standard that pulled the show together and gave it grounding and focus.
Grace’s work tied in beautifully with Musical Direction by Taylor Holmes. Each singer was able to showcase their unique talents, and even the less gifted among them had been given an opportunity to shine. Clear attention was paid to the difficult harmony work throughout, and all of the ensemble felt as though they were extremely comfortable with Sondheim’s notoriously difficult music.
Leading the company as both the Balladeer and Lee Harvey Oswald, Beans Goodfellow gave a masterclass in performance. Vocally he was spectacular, and his work as the Balladeer was light and funny, eerily working as a peacekeeper between the different characters. He was smooth and charming. It was his switch to Oswald however that was alarmingly impressive, as he transformed himself, simply by removing his cap and coat.
Goodfellow’s incarnation of the hunched, sullen, desperate killer was up there as one of the most impressive moments of the night. Flipping the show from a comedic review to a tense, dark thriller where every single audience member must have wondered what it would be like to step up, take the rifle, and join this dark little band of killers. It was a masterful performance.
Vying for top spot was Lee Stoka as the man who started it all, John Wilkes Booth. There was a never-ending charisma that seemed to ooze out of him as he sauntered about the stage. Stoka’s performance was eminently watchable, and even when he was just sitting quietly in the background reading a book, audience’s eyes were drawn to him. For an actor who hasn’t graced the stage in more than a decade, it can only be said that our theatres have been poorer for his absence.
Simon Stone’s performance as Charles Guiteau oozed showmanship and over the top brashness. His kickline on the way to the gallows was inspired, and he brought a consistent preening postulation to the stage that bordered on a self-righteousness not found in any of the other characters. Stone’s ability to focus on what was going on in the scene, while always keeping an eye on the audience, ready for a wink and a nod, was wonderful.
Bringing an incredible amount of comedy to the sometimes ghoulish revue, Kat Brand as Sara Jane Moore took every opportunity she was on stage to pick the show up and run away with it. Her comic timing was precise and well thought out, and her portrayal of Moore was a delightful mixture of fluster and radical political ideology. Brand lent the show a wonderful additional dimension, and without her performance shambolically butting up against the charismatic delivery of some of her co-stars, it would have been a far less successful production overall.
There is something captivating about a man who carries himself and his ideals with a reflective silence. As steelworker and activist Leon Czolgosz, Kevin Price underscored an amazing still, considered thoughtfulness in the role. His Czolgosz was driven and impassioned from the moment that he set foot onto the stage, but there was something in the inward, introspective aspects of the character that made this a masterful performance. Additionally, Price’s beautiful bass voice was equal to any on that stage, and added a richness to the harmony work. Lifting the quality and timbre considerably.
Ricky Moss brought the over the top Samuel Byck to life in a blitz of beer and Bernstein. There was plenty to like and loathe about this character, in particular the affable way that he chatted to his voice recorder, so calm, so completely separated from the reality around him. Moss was convincing as the grubby, loud mouthed assassin, and his work blending into the back of the full company scenes was equally impressive.
Bringing Lynette ‘squeaky’ Fromme to life, Tabitha Woods brought us a besotted, unnervingly devoted portrayal of a woman lost at sea. Her work with Brand’s Moore was especially delightful, and her vocals in the duet ‘Unworthy Of Your Love’ were heartbreaking. She carefully curated her love and devotion to Charles Manson, and carried it with her like a burning torch which drove every action, and interaction, that she made on stage.
George Pulley gave a forceful showing as Giuseppe Zangara. His physicality was fairly well spot on, constantly clutching at his stomach as he leant into the idiosyncrasies of a man determined to undo the capitalist structure of America. His sheer indomitable size gave a sense of gravitas and steely focus to the portrayal, which Pulley carried through from start to finish.
In the dual roles of gun shop Proprietor and John Hinkley Nathan French’s performance was nuanced and earnest. The bumbling he brought to Hinkley, so unsure of himself, so clearly fumbling his way through life. The performance was spot on, and held a delightful vulnerability to it.
The wonderful ensemble that rounded out the cast were a delight of focus and precision. In particular the precocious brattiness of Braeden Mercuri, as a fictional child of Sara Jane Moore who was demanding his Buffalo Bill. The ensemble lifted each scene they were in, filling in spots as minor characters and past Presidents. During the final moments of the show, when the chorus all appear onstage with the main cast, it was evident that they were well drilled in their actions. Everything was delivered with a spot on accuracy that was as unnerving as it was impressive.
Hands down one of the best moments in the entire show, and certainly worth an honourable mention, is Brand as Sara Jane Moore realising she’s shot her dog by mistake, and then accidentally spills all of her bullets on the floor. The scene is beautifully acted, and the genuine frustration paired with the slapstick flailing with the bullets is a showstopping highlight.
The show’s overall theme of simplicity in its design was echoed by Sound and Lighting Designers Mikaela Murphy and Colin Crow respectively. The lighting is subtle, often casting the barest shade of a colour into a scene to underscore the intent of the actor, but it works beautifully. Additionally the sound is for the most part clean and well balanced, although at times the backing tracks were a fraction too loud, and some of the dialogue was lost, but these moments were few, and would be expected to be resolved as the company moved through the season.
This production runs like a slick, well-oiled machine. It keeps spinning and is as funny as it is compellingly self-aware. ‘Assassins’ treads a fine line between the absurd and the eerily logical, and it has be seen to be believed. Javeenbah have staged a relevant, intense, and commendable version of the show, and they deserve every seat in their beautiful little theatre to be full all the way through to closing night.
‘Assassins’ performs at Javeenbah Theatre until 21 March, 2020. For ticketing and additional information visit http://javeenbah.org.au.
This article was edited by Benjamin Tubb-Hearne.