Daily Reporter staff reports
INDIANAPOLIS — Cast members pose for publicity photographs with guns in their hands, the laughter and joviality among them belying the darkness of their roles in the show.
The Buck Creek Players production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins” is about just that — murderers or would-be murderers of presidents.
On a recent evening, the actors portraying these headline-making criminals posed for the camera, holding their weapons straight out in front of them.
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The weapons are authentic replicas of the actual guns used by each assassin. Most have solid barrels and cannot accommodate bullets but are designed to shoot blanks.
“It’s really heavy,” said Stacia Hulen with surprise, adjusting to the weight of the .45 semi-automatic Colt her character, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, used in an assassination attempt on President Gerald Ford in 1975.
A show that features presidential assassins — four successful and five who were not — might seem like an unusual choice for a musical, but for director and Hancock County native Scott Robinson, it’s the kind of show that draws his attention.
With past theatrical credits including “Carrie the Musical,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Lizzie Borden the Musical” and a musical based on Bonnie and Clyde for next year’s season, the macabre “Assassins” sounds about right.
Along with Fromme, also represented in the cast are: Leon Czolgosz (Jake McDuffee), John Hinckley Jr. (Trenton Baker), Giuseppe Zangara (Scott Fleshood), Sara Jane Moore (Cathy Tolzmann), Charles Guiteau (David Wood) and Samuel Byck (Daniel Draves).
Robinson, a New Palestine native and history buff, has wanted to do “Assassins,” originally produced off Broadway in 1990, for awhile.
Not sure of the place in history of all those infamous names? Then “Assassins” has already done its job as Robinson’s favorite kind of show — the ones that make you think.
“This one does, especially when you realize that you’re empathizing with the assassins,” Robinson said.
Robinson, as a director, is a stickler for details. Aside from the period clothing that costumer Linda Rowland has selected to place each of the assassins in their proper historical time frame, guns are integral to the show.
Robinson brought in special effects designer David Schlatter to replicate the weapon used by each assassin throughout history — from the .44-caliber Derringer John Wilkes Booth used to kill Abraham Lincoln to the Mannlicher-Carcano used by Lee Harvey Oswald to end the life of John F. Kennedy.
Schlatter is known in Indianapolis theater circles as an expert on blood effects and weaponry. He and Robinson worked together on “Carrie the Musical,” and Robinson called on Schlatter’s expertise for “Assassins.”
With a cast of 16 characters and 12 different weapons, Schlatter insisted upon gun safety training for the entire cast and crew.
“I don’t let people rent them or use them without training,” Schlatter said. “People can be killed with blanks. I teach them to always treat it as a live fire gun that can shoot a real bullet.”
Schlatter trained stage manager Gary Nelson as the gun wrangler for the show, teaching him how to properly load and unload the guns. Nelson’s job is to hand the weapons to the actors before they go on stage and take them away soon as the actors come off stage.
Draves of McCordsville plays Samuel Byck, whose failed 1974 assassination plot against Richard Nixon involved flying a 747 into the White House. His attraction to a show like “Assassins” is in the complexity of Sondheim’s score.
“I’ve had the soundtrack in my car for the last 12 years,” he said.
Draves considers himself to be more of a singer than an actor and playing Byck, who doesn’t have a solo in the show, gives him a chance to stretch his acting skills. Draves calls Byck a slobby, out-of-work tire salesman who spends the show eating fast food, drinking beer and talking into a tape recorder. Although he handles a gun, he doesn’t actually get to fire it.
“My biggest challenge in this show is juggling all the food while trying to remember long speeches,” Draves said.
Italian immigrant Giuseppe Zangara, who made an attempt on Franklin Roosevelt’s, is played by Greenfield actor Scott Fleshood. With make-up and costume, Fleshood admits he bears a strong resemblance to his character.
The dialogue is a challenge for the non-Italian speaker who is called upon to deliver lines in Zangara’s native tongue.
“I tried using a translator app,” Fleshood said, “and that was even more confusing. I’m an actor. My job is to learn the line and figure it out later.”
Robinson is excited about his show, which opens this weekend and runs through June 12.
The show’s firepower — both in its cast and weaponry — add a layer of depth Robinson hopes will impress audiences.
Who: The Buck Creek Players
What: “”Assassins,” a musical by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman
Where: 11150 Southeastern Ave., Indianapolis
When: Weekends May 27 through June 12; Friday and Saturday performances at 8 p.m., Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m.
Visit buckcreekplayers.com for ticket reservations.