When Galen Murphy-Hoffman enters the stage in Shotgun's production of Assassins, you recognize his character immediately. The ashen complexion, the mustache, the frock coat, the fixed, ghostly stare: a portrait straight out of a history textbook.
But in this Stephen Sondheim musical, John Wilkes Booth is not just an eerie image of, as the lyrics go, the villain who brought the nation "to its knees" or "paved the way for other madmen." Susannah Martin's sensitively directed production shows Booth and other would-be and actual presidential assassins as people who express the typical frustrations with society but, unlike everyone else, refuse to let society stifle them.
The production resonates with election-year narratives. Sam Byck (a disturbing Ryan Drummond) tape-records messages for his target, Richard Nixon, and also his idol, Leonard Bernstein, which reflect the truth-twisting of a certain recent presidential debate. But the show is also timeless as an achievement in musical theater; its storytelling is just as complex as Sondheim's notoriously manic melodies.
The stories don't proceed chronologically but rather weave together across time and space. John Hinckley Jr. (Danny Cozart) and Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (Cody Metzger) come together for a sappy ballad about unrequited love, while Booth persuades Lee Harvey Oswald (Kevin Singer) that killing the president will solve all his problems. The characters are always in dialogue with the American dream and their own historical legacy. Sondheim and John Weidman, who wrote the musical's book, clearly see assassination as an attempt by the assassin to rewrite his or her own story. But history, embodied by the smug and watchful "Proprietor" (Jeff Garrett), will always prefer its own version.
Marin Theatre Company's production of Topdog/Underdog, Suzan-Lori Parks' Pulitzer Prize-winning play, also features a Booth, but he is no historical figure, not exactly. Played by Biko Eisen-Martin, Booth is a young contemporary black man living in a squalid one-room apartment with no bathroom or running water. He has no "John Wilkes" in front of his name, but he does have an older brother named Lincoln (Bowman Wright).
Booth, like his namesake, is a performer by trade. The historical Booth was an actor who, Sondheim jokes, killed Lincoln because of bad reviews; the Booth in Topdog/Underdog works not in the theater but with "a three-card Monte scam on the classic setup: three playing cards and the cardboard playing board atop two mismatched milk crates."
Both also see their fortunes crumble at the perceived expense of a Lincoln. In this play, Lincoln is the superior card shark, retired and playing the presidential role in whiteface in an arcade: All he has to do is sit there and get shot.
Poetic as the play's language is, its symbolism is overwrought. The central conceit, naming two African-American brothers Lincoln and Booth, makes every other choice — from Booth's constant reference to his "inheritance" to whether the winning card is red or black — into a sign that's forced full of meaning.
The plot can be just as creaky. The exposition goes so far as to explain the psychology of the brothers' unseen parents: "I think there was something out there that they liked more than they liked us, and for years they was struggling against moving towards that more-liked something." And Lincoln's evolution is obvious from the first mention that he "swore off the cards." He might value his "sit-down job with benefits" at the top of the show, but the line "Still got my moves. Still got my chops," is as inevitable as the happy ending in a rom-com.
Under the direction of Timothy Douglas, Eisen-Martin and Wright often fail to enliven these difficult moments. Wright, in particular, makes Lincoln so unruffled as to lower the stakes of the brothers' poverty. But the two light up when the script lets them simply be brothers, speaking their own language of verbal one-upmanship, secret foot-shakes, and minstrel show playacting as if it's only in that idiom that they are truly alive.
The stakes finally rise toward the end of the play when both brothers put their cards on the table. But it's too little too late. Parks' drama spends too much time telling its audience about American history and society and who gets left out, neglecting what shows are so good at: showing.