The scene is set from the moment you walk in the door: patriotic music blares cheerfully through the speakers, the stage is decked in red, white and blue.
Surely, this is a show about America.
And yes, Buck Creek Players’ “Assassins” is about America — that and murder, anyway.
Stephen Sondheim’s musical vignettes put the audience inside the minds of some of the country’s most notorious citizens throughout history, as four presidential assassins — and five whose plans were foiled — share their twisted motivations.
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Were there any question about whether this is a family-friendly show, the vulgarity-laced intro speech — prelude to an equally visceral performance by the same actor later on — erases all doubt.
Buck Creek’s production leaves the audience delightfully uncomfortable, caught somewhere between cringing and clapping, wanting to applaud devilish performances about wicked people but wondering whether such congratulations are appropriate.
This cast expertly follows the script’s dark narrative without overdoing it, paying homage to crazed lunatics while keeping them relatable — if not sympathetic. Despite a few technical issues (mic placement made some characters easier to understand than others), the cast transitions flawlessly between scenes and jarring mood changes, keeping the audience ill at ease, wondering who will raise a gun and shatter the silence next.
Aaron B. Bailey’s set design is simplistic but effective, with wide red and white stripes and an impressively detailed presidential seal positioned (unfortunately, given its artistry) on the floor downstage. The show’s makeup (Daniel Klingler) and lighting (Joanne Johnson) design work in tandem to create a ghoulish carnival-like atmosphere, where guns and violence are the centerpiece of the midway.
Choosing a favorite assassin, macabre a task as that sounds, is impossible — until Daniel Draves picks up a beer and launches into a minutes-long diatribe against “Dick Nixon” as hijacker Samuel Byck. Whether it’s the stained, red Santa suit and filthy undershirt or the way he manhandles a sandwich while railing against the president, you don’t dare take your eyes off him.
Of all actors showcasing murderous intent, Draves’ portrayal of Byck is the most disturbing — in that conflicted way that makes audience members feel guilty about wanting to clap. His monologues are gritty and believable, punctuated by the ebb and flow of a conversation he has only with himself.
A physical actor, Draves embodies his character in a macabre way none of his castmates quite achieves.
Jake McDuffee as Leon Czolgosz, who assassinated William McKinley in 1901, for those of you fuzzy on the history, easily has the best voice in the show, whether singing or speaking. McDuffee gives an emotional performance as the bitter and broken-hearted immigrant. “The Gun Song” is one of his best, with tightly-woven harmonies about “just a single little finger” on the trigger having the power to change the world.
Stacia Hulen injects more than just a hint of sex into her portrayal of hippie Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, whose attempt on Gerald Ford’s life came, by this script’s interpretation, at the behest of Charles Manson. Hulen and sidekick Cathy Tolzmann (as Sara Jane Moore, fellow would-be Ford assassin, were she a better shot) share great chemistry on stage.
Being in the ensemble in this show is a bit of a thankless task — they sing in only a few numbers and have little time on stage — but they round out the cast superbly. They serve as perfect scene-setters (important given the minimalist backdrop), whether called upon to portray carnival-goers or eager crowds awaiting a president’s speech.
And several have their own shining moments, too — Bryan Padgett as a bumbly but lovable Gerald Ford, Mary Hayes Tuttle as anarchist Emma Goldman.
“Assassins” gives new life to the history books and is sure to set you Googling as you walk out the door, hungry for new details about these colorfully creepy characters.
The show is filled with so many dramatic moments, the audience is certain the end of this song, the last line of that scene, marks the end of the show. But these actors just keep on delivering until they finally go out with a satisfying bang.
Buck Creek Players’ production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins,” runs through June 12; Friday and Saturday performances are at 8 p.m.; Sunday matinees begin at 2:30 p.m. at the playhouse, 11150 Southeastern Ave., Indianapolis. For ticket information, visit www.buckcreekplayers.com.