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Leon Czolgosz # 1 With A Bullet

Leon Czolgosz # 1 With A Bullet

Don’t miss Company One’s AssassinsHas the Internet exacerbated American entitlement, or merely exposed it fully? Either way, you can’t spend more than 10 minutes on a web forum without encountering some people who have mentally added new privileges to the Bill of Rights, like the right to never feel annoyed or the right to never be contradicted. Flame wars erupt over the tiniest of matters because we’re so smugly sure that we’re beautiful and unique snowflakes that merely being disagreed with is upsetting and offensive.

It’s not a phenomenon confined to online trolls. In a Boston Globe article last week, former broadcast journalist Liz Walker expressed concerns about Company One’s production of Assassins, the musical/dark comedy about malcontents who’ve taken a shot at American presidents. "Why would a show like Assassins be done at a time when we’re about to have a first black president?" Walker is quoted as saying. "Why would we want to put that energy out there?" Though delicately and diplomatically stated, this is just another expression of the idea so prevalent online: that if there’s something I’d rather not think about, no one else should talk about it. (I wonder how far we should go to protect this sensibility? There will always be a president in the White House, so is there ever a good time for a production of Assassins? Should we remove mention of Hinckley and Booth from history textbooks lest anyone gets any ideas?)

It’s not as if Assassins is advocating assassination. The 1991 musical revue with a book by John Weidman and music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim isn’t advocating much at all beyond taking a closer look at some damaged minds, but it comes down pretty clearly on the "assassination is bad" side of things. The show’s second and penultimate numbers, which are about the assassinations of Lincoln and Kennedy, say that John Wilkes Booth made Lee Harvey Oswald possible; that violence always begets more violence. "Angry men don’t write the rules, and guns don’t right the wrongs," is delivered to a dying Booth by The Balladeer, the narrator/conscience of the show.

Booth, the only fairly lucid gunman in the show’s metaphysical combination of peanut gallery and shooting gallery where nine assassins and would-be assassins gather, expresses some complaints about Lincoln that resonate loudly today: that he exceeded the power of his office, that he provoked a war, that he silenced critics by jailing them without trial. The Balladeer offers up the comforting notion that soon the country will be "back where it belongs," but also blasts Booth for begetting violence to political discourse: "Lincoln, who got mixed reviews/Because of you, John, now gets only raves!"

You can trace that degradation of American discourse into two shrill sides in the motivations of the assassins who follow in Booth’s footsteps. Some of the other gun toters in this lot try to cloak themselves in political rhetoric - anarchist Leon Czolgosz rails against the exploitive evils of industrial capitalism; Giuseppe Zangara dispenses cryptic vitriol against governments in broken English - but by the time we get to John Hinckley, expressions of vague political dissatisfaction have been replaced with vague complaints of being wronged by the world.

To be sure, the show explores legitimate concerns in its exploration of the flip side of the American dream. All of these hotheads are manifestations of disillusionment with myths like "Anyone can grow up to be the President." But this dissatisfaction with the very real inequalities of our country, which forms "another national anthem" of discontent, has here curdled into an outrage that is insular, personal. "Everyone has the right to be happy," claim the assassins in the opening number, but that dubious right proves insufficient. They also have the right to be famous, to be special, to be Ambassador to France and Leonard Bernstein’s buddy and Jody Foster’s boyfriend.

The most unsettling character in the show is not one of the obvious loonies like John Hinckley or Lynnette "Squeaky" Fromme, the acolyte of Charles Manson. It’s Charles Byck, who tried to blow up the White House (with Nixon in it, preferably) in 1974. As portrayed in Assassins, Byck is not burdened with obvious mental illness or indeed any problems that aren’t run of the mill. Nevertheless he feels a towering rage at the world. When Byck sing-screams "Where’s my prize?" at fate itself, I was reminded of the hundreds of unaccountably angry online posters I’ve seen rail against anyone who offers, however innocently or subtly, a threat to their worldview or sense of self-importance.

In an interview with Bay Windows last week, Company One’s artistic director Shawn Laconte said that Assassins asks how our country produced these people. Watching Byck’s tantrums, I wondered why we haven’t produced more of them.

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