History, and all theatre, for there is a history of the theatre of history, has a strange problem: when narrativized with myth by metaphor, it makes us view events funnily. Steven Sondheim’s “Assassins,” produced by the Cumberland Theatre and directed by Kimberli Rowley, plays with this truth by setting the assassinations of American presidents in front of a carnival backdrop. With a surge of color, myth, jaunty tunes and sentimental lyrics, stretching across many genres, this theatre group’s first production of the 2020 season is a must see for all people on both sides of today’s American political divide.
Campy set designs mix with a lighting design that shines as bright as the actors’ voices, and costumes that accurately reflect the historical periods in which the ghosts of our assassinators proceed, confirm my suspicion concerning the problem of theatre. I’m not saying there was a problem with this theatre’s production; I am saying that Sondheim’s dramatization, ironic and/or serious, camouflages the world-historical conditions in which these assassinations were situated. This is the danger of art. On one hand, you have the potential for liberation, yet, on the other hand, you also have the potential to be mystified, that is, lead to believe something that isn’t true. Does this mean that “Assassins” is a bad piece of art? Not necessarily.
…Cumberland Theatre’s production of “Assassins” exhilarates like those fun, wild rides that you’ll want to ride again and again.
All the actors have strong voices and sang along to pre-recorded music. I was able to clearly hear without a microphone rig or setup in use. Given the theatre’s small size, I am sure those in the last row heard the actors. There’s no bad view in the Cumberland Theatre. A few standouts include the exceptional Josh Ruppenkamp as the Balladeer whose voice sounds as confident as Neil Cassidy’s original cast recording; The dazzling Caleb Tracy, whose croon in “Everybody’s Got the right” stamped this brain with the song’s melody; Finally, Matthew Clark, as John Hinkley, delivered a wonderfully sweet timbre during “Unworthy of Your Love.”
I left the show contemplating gun violence—does the musical condone gun violence, if so, in what way? I left the show wondering whether the aestheticization of assassinations lead to us accepting murder as a fact of life in general or lead to a new way to see the motivations of these assassins? I left the show asking myself: “What did I just see?” and this is a good thing because it means that Cumberland Theatre’s production of “Assassins” exhilarates like those fun, wild rides that you’ll want to ride again and again. To return to my earlier question, is Sondheim’s art trying to say that Chance, much like the squirt-gun game (the one where you aimed water for a clown’s mouth, played at carnivals) rules all of History?
Running Time: 2 hours with no intermission.
Advisory: This show contains strong language and violent themes. Recommended for ages 14 and up.
“Assassins” plays through February 23, 2020, at the Cumberland Theatre –101 Johnson Street, Cumberland, MD 21502. For tickets visit online.