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Ole Miss Theatre to Stage Tony-winner ‘Assassins’

UM theatre arts students Hannah Bosworth (left), Kaelee Albritton and Elena Ontiveros rehearse for the Ole Miss Theatre production of ‘Assassins,’ which runs this weekend in Fulton Chapel. Photo by Thomas Graning/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

If it’s true that one of the functions of performing arts in society is to help us confront and grapple with complex and challenging issues, then Ole Miss Theatre and Film’s second full production of the season would appear to come at an appropriate time.

“Assassins,” a musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by John Weidman, opens for a short run Friday (Nov. 9) at the University of Mississippi. Performances are slated for 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, all in Fulton Chapel. The Sunday matinee is already sold out.

The story brings together a diverse group of presidential assassins from history – both would-be and successful – ranging from John Wilkes Booth, who shot and killed President Abraham Lincoln, to John Hinckley, who shot and injured President Ronald Reagan, in a revue-style series of vignettes that explore their motivations and the nation-shaking results of their actions.

Director René Pulliam, associate professor of theatre arts and longtime head of the Department of Theatre and Film’s BFA program in musical theatre, said that “Assassins” was among several options considered when the department set the 2018-19 lineup last year, but she felt that some of the others were too similar to plays the department had staged recently.

“I thought it was time to give the students a chance to do Sondheim,” Pulliam said. “He’s a master, and not just musically, but with lyrics, too. His lyrics are not your traditional rhyme patterns, and … he has a lot to say.”

Pulliam, who is retiring at the end of the school year, said “Assassins,” her last Ole Miss Theatre production to direct, will go down as one of her favorites. Others include “Drowsy Chaperone,” “Cabaret” and “Company,” all of which she described as “concept musicals.”

“Concept musicals have a point to make,” she said. “For a director, that gives you a chance to look into the meaning. First, you look into what the creators are trying to say; then you figure out how to make it fit today.”

“Assassins” is nearly 30 years old, and Pulliam has introduced directorial innovations that felt current to her. For example, Pulliam cast a woman as one of the male assassins, giving another female actor a chance to appear onstage in a show that has few female characters.

“This show is traditionally all male except for two females,” she said. “Academically, for us, this is not right – we have more women than men.”

Senior theatre arts major Kaelee Albritton, of O’Fallin, Illinois, will play two roles, one of which is Lee Harvey Oswald, whose assassination of President John F. Kennedy has captivated history buffs – and conspiracy theorists – for decades.

“Being a woman stepping into the shoes of these two characters, who were originally men, has opened my eyes in more ways than I could imagine,” Albritton said. “Diving into the depths of (Oswald’s) physical and psychological reality has granted me a reality check of my own.”

Sophomore theatre arts major Gregor Patti, who plays John Wilkes Booth, viewed the musical format as an opportunity to strive for a very specific kind of historical accuracy in his portrayal of one of our nation’s most infamous killers.

“At the beginning, I focused a lot on vocal training for the voice of Booth,” said Patti, of Jackson. “Him being from Maryland in the 1800s, I found clips and read articles on articulation and such for people of that area in that time.”

Getting the voice just right wasn’t necessarily easy, Patti said.

“Until this semester, I never had a vocal coach or teacher to really help me locate and use my voice safely,” Patti said. “It’s been nice to have our music director, Paul (Marszalkowski), be so patient with me and all my questions, and Micah-Shane (Brewer, instructional assistant professor of musical theatre) has been a great help with voice lessons.”

One directorial choice Pulliam felt strongly about was the use of real guns that fire blanks onstage, rather than using toys or lookalikes paired with sound effects, for some 37 shots fired throughout the performance.

“One of the themes, to me, is this idea of, ‘If I have a gun, I am all-powerful, I can create my own law,'” Pulliam said.

“If my theme is to talk about guns being a thing of power, and we have this” – Pulliam waved a pistol-finger and said “bang” in a mousy voice – “the theme is ruined.”

Numerous safety measures have been taken with regard to the weapons, she said. All the guns have either been modified to fire only blanks or are replicas that don’t fire at all. For the guns that fire blanks, small ammunition will be used, so shots won’t be as loud as they would in a real-life scenario – maybe as loud as a firecracker, Pulliam said.

“The singers need to be able to sing after they fire, and if it’s too loud, they can’t hear,” she said. “So that’s ear safety.”

Besides these onstage precautions, the crew includes “gun wranglers” who maintain control of the firearms, which are never taken into dressing rooms by cast members and are locked away at night. Campus security is aware of the performances and will be present in the area.

Finally, the department brought in an expert fight choreographer, Jason Paul Tate, who goes by various titles, including “firearms consultant” and “special-effects coordinator,” to oversee and implement the use of weapons and make sure that protocols are in place and followed.

Albritton emphasized that although working with weapons can be challenging, it’s valuable training for a future in theater.

“Both of my characters are very accustomed to the sound of guns going off, which is the complete opposite of my experience,” Albritton said. “Even though handling these weapons has been difficult, I am grateful to be able to get the experience now so I can be prepared for shows later on in my career.”

Besides simulated gunfire, the production also contains smoke and strobe effects.

The score is a century-spanning survey of American popular music, with tunes modeled after the prominent style of each character’s era and covering everything from Sousa-style marches and barbershop to folk ballads and cheesy pop-rock duets. In the songs, the assassins air their grievances and express what they believe these acts of violence will do for them.

“The message here is that if you do something like this, you become famous,” Pulliam said. “Each assassin had their own reasons for doing what they did, but underlying that is ‘I want to be remembered.'”

Tickets for all performances except the Sunday matinee are available at the UM Box Office or by calling 662-915-7411. Friday night’s performance will be followed by an opening reception at the Oxford-University Depot.

By Katherine Stewart

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