During the opening notes of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Assassins, the cast lines up like they are ready to fire at a carnival shooting gallery of presidents and sings the sardonic number “Everybody’s Got the Right.”
Every time Near West Theatre artistic director Bob Navis Jr. pictures it, he can’t help but notice that the formation looks strikingly similar to the current-day image of presidential candidates assembled behind podiums during their debates.
“It’s almost impossible not to see that lineup,” says Navis. “It really unites what’s happening all around us in the world and what’s happening in this play.”
From July 15 to 31, the youth theater in the Gordon Square Arts District presents the darkly comic production about attempted and successful assassinations of United States presidents. Assassins examines what drives someone to murder a political figure, from feelings of anger with the government to an obsession with fame.
“You realize they’re doing outrageous acts,” Navis says. “But you understand that desperation behind a human being trying to find a way to balance injustice.”
Although the original play debuted in 1990, there’s not a topic that comes up in the production that hasn’t been at the forefront of this election, Navis says. The role of John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated Abraham Lincoln because he believed slavery was justified, for example, echoes racial tensions that have been a recent hot-button issue.
“This musical does not tell us how to think or behave, nor does it judge the assassins,” he says.
Although the young actors, ages 16 to 25, haven’t lived through a presidential assassination, Navis gets them to tap into the sinister backgrounds of their characters by asking them to think about being pushed to the edge.
“Working with this age group is so raw, because they have no filter,” says Navis. “They’re already fighting against boundaries and limits, so they’re right there, ready to have that
The tension comes to a finale in “Another National Anthem,” when the entire cast is barred from a ballpark symbolic of the American dream. To Navis, it represents the division between the supposed promise of this country and the reality of inequality.
“No one’s ever even gonna care if we’re alive, are they?” the ensemble sings.
“In the end, the themes are just so simple,” asserts Navis. “I want to be noticed, I want to make a difference, I want to protest in a way in which someone actually hears me. These are basic human needs, exponentially magnified."