Fuse Productions joins election season fever this year with a series of politically charged shows — a series that kicks off Sept. 27 with Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s dark musical, “Assassins.”
A discussion with the cast will be held immediately after each performance.
A multiple Tony Award-winning theatrical tour de force, this darkly comic look at the American underbelly uses the premise of a murderous carnival game to portray the men and women who attempted to assassinate U.S. Presidents, and those who succeeded.
From John Wilkes Booth to Lee Harvey Oswald, Sondheim and Weidman bend the rules of time and space, taking the audience on a nightmarish roller coaster ride in which assassins and would-be assassins from different historical periods meet, interact and inspire each other.
“Assassins” will be directed by Richard Biever and choreographed by Jill Brighton, and features a 15-person cast, including regional favorites Jonathan O’Harrow, Mike Waldhier, Kat Shondeck and James McCready, as well as a 10-member pit orchestra conducted by Garrett Martin.
“ ‘Assassins’ is chilling, heartrending and very funny in places,” Biever said. “It explores what goes on in the mind of the characters, not the controversy of assassination itself. The theme is that you have the right to pursue happiness, but not the right to be happy. The characters are wrongly convinced that they have the right to take their unhappiness out on others.”
Steve Travis plays John Hinckley, the man who shot President Ronald Reagan in 1981, and appeared back in the headlines this month when he was release from a mental hospital.
Before taking this role, Travis knew the basics of who Hinckley was from what he was taught in history class — that he was obsessed with the actress Jodie Foster and shot Reagan to get her attention.
“To prepare, I tried to find out more about Hinckley’s life before the assassination attempt,” he said. “His parents wrote a book on their son called ‘Breaking Points,’ which also helped me get into the mindset of who he was at the time and what he was going through mentally.”
Sara Jane Moore, played by Kat Shondeck, was one of the two women, who — 17 days apart — attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford.
“She thought the only way the country would change would be through a violent revolution,” Shondeck said. “She also felt that she was insignificant enough that if she were the one who carried out the assassination, the people who needed to be heard would be free to do so.”
A series of mess-ups and mistakes Moore made are used as comic relief to otherwise very dark subject matter, Shondeck said.
“Assassins” is a show filled with characters and stories that most people have heard of before. It asks us not to like the characters, but to try to learn something about them and understand the nature of what can cause a seemingly normal, well-meaning individual to turn and move toward the unthinkable.
“It analyzes these individuals as people instead of monsters or, as the show itself says, ‘footnotes in a history book,’ ” Travis said. “What is unique about the show is that all of these assassins, past and current, interact with each other in real-time, so you get to see personalities and ideologies clash directly in front of your eyes.”
Shondeck believes that Americans need to stop confusing the right to pursue happiness with the right to be happy, that our happiness is on us, and that it’s not the responsibility of anyone else.
“We also need to acknowledge that our system is not perfect, even if the intentions of those who created it were noble,” she said. “We need to find ways to fix it, and not expect someone to come fix it for us. We have a responsibility to make the world a better place.”
With an important upcoming election and a myriad of problems facing our country, Shondeck thinks the production could not be more timely.
“There are multiple topics that are hot button issues right now: like gun control, mental health, civil rights and equality,” Shondeck said. “It’s a good reminder that if we don’t fix what’s broken, we are doomed to a repetitive cycle of unrest and chaos.”
Travis hopes the audience walks away with at least a better understanding of who these individuals were without feeling the urge to agree with them or even like them. However, the show itself is not all serious and somber.
“Many of these individuals and their acts are sensationalized and lampooned, and there are many moments of laughter and absurdity,” he said. “We want the audience to be entertained and to feel comfortable laughing when we urge them to laugh. It’s a serious subject with serious people, but the show has lighter moments than you may expect.”
While Shondeck doesn’t want anyone to condone any of the actions these people took, she would like the audience to walk away with more insight into the mindset of the assassins, where perhaps they can see some of it in themselves, or someone they know, and be proactive to make a change for the positive.
“I think we’re going to give them a lot to think about, along with some fantastic show tunes,” she said. “I love that we’re doing talk backs after every performance, because I think the audience will need some time to process and discuss what they’ve seen before they leave the theater and head out into the real world.”
IF YOU GO
- What: Fuse Productions’ “Assassins”
- When: Sept. 27-Oct. 1
- Where: Penn State Downtown Theatre Center, 146 S. Allen St., State College
- Info: fuseproductions.org