Playmakers Repertory Company performed “Assassins”, a Tony Award-winning musical by Stephen Sondheim, in Chapel Hill this spring. The sinister comedy followed a string of assassins from different eras of US history who had either tried or succeeded at assassinating US presidents. The play progressed through monologues and conversations between the characters as they contemplated and attempted their assassinations. I found the execution of theatrical production and the deliverance of insightful social commentary in “Assassins” to be particularly notable.
Lighting and stage design were expertly manipulated to produce innovative scenes throughout the performance. Assassination was made out to be a kind of carnival game throughout the play, with red and yellow bulb lights flashing in patterns to signal either victory or defeat at every assassin’s attempt. Such a juxtaposition between the demented seriousness of murder and the playfulness of carnival games created an intriguing and amusing theme throughout the performance. I also enjoyed variety in the use of the stage. At times, a single character would take center stage in spotlight that added to the drama of their impending task as they delivered a monologue, and other scenes utilized the upstage scaffolding that elevated the characters and set them in frames of carnival lights as they spoke their separate commentaries in quick succession. I have never seen this unique formatting or creative use of light and space, and it added greatly to the dramatic dimension of the play and its theme of dark humor. The use of the stage and lighting made a valuable contribution to the cohesiveness of the theme of fame-obsession by playing with the concepts on winning and solitariness. The designers further enhanced an already interesting space (the stage thrusts into the audience so that seating surrounds each side), through their innovative use of light and space that drew the audience to be more immersed in the assissins’ stories.
The written content of assassins was also creatively crafted so as to convey social commentary on our culture’s obsession with fame and how we connect it intricately to acceptance. The conversations between characters and the emphasis of their individual songs combined to effectively echo a theme of fascination with fame and a longing to be accepted. These themes were not outright or in-your-face, but just subtle enough to suggest that each character was equally unaware of their obsession and desperately dependent on it. “Assassins” was a wonderful display of storytelling and theatrics that brought a string of obscure historical figures together and shed light on our continued cultural obsession with fame as a means of acceptance.