Way to Heaven/Assassins
Rough Magic’s Seeds double bill is perhaps the most auspicious and brilliant of the company’s culminations yet
Karl Quinn as the commandant
Way to Heaven/Assassins
Project Arts Centre, Dublin
Rough Magic’s Seeds showcase, the company’s development initiative for emerging theatre makers, is now in its 12th year. This year, it opted for a double bill, featuring Spanish playwright Juan Mayorga’s Way to Heaven, and Assassins, an adapted musical by Stephen Sondheim. It is perhaps the most auspicious and brilliant of the company’s culminations yet.
In Way to Heaven, set designer Zia Holly presents the 1944 Theresienstadt (a concentration camp on a railroad to Auschwitz) as a dimly lit space framed by high fences of barbed wire and littered with microphones. A man in a pair of laceless shoes and a bowler hat holds a single helium balloon in one hand and a pin in the other, marrying the two in a terrific pop to mark the opening of this disturbing play within a play.
It was here that the Nazis fabricated a perversely extravagant theatre of their own, ahead of a visit by a Red Cross worker, in order to dispel rising suspicions about their extermination tactics. The opening is a static monologue by the worker, telling us with retrospective guilt of his visit as a young man to what he was to describe as “an ordinary town”, where he observed a courting couple, a classical string trio, children playing and the smell of fresh paint. As the re-enactment of this abhorrent travesty begins, the repeated rehearsals of such scenes are played out before us by the camp’s selected “actors” with effectively flat monotony.
The play’s most pivotal moments occur between the conceited commandant (Karl Quinn) and his chosen detainee Gottfried (Will O’Connell). The commandant, fancying himself the theatre connoisseur, cajoles Gottfried into coaxing better performances out of his terrified thespians. This is a haunting and important play that probes at the inherently dangerous ability within us all to see what we want to see, rather than what is really there.
Assassins is an electric new production of the Stephen Sondheim musical, and it gets off the mark with an almighty bang of gunshot, donning the caption “Shoot the Prez, win a prize” in the opening scene. This all-singing all-dancing cast of gung-ho Americans from different epochs of history share a single datum: all have assassinated, or attempted to assassinate the US’s past presidents.
It quickly becomes clear that choosing the front row in this 110-minute uproarious piece of musical theatre means having various guns waved in your face by the cast, for the gun is a staple part of each performer’s attire, popping up out of handbags, or produced from suit pockets and belt holders left, right and centre.
In slapstick fashion, this piece details the stories behind figures such as John Wilkes Booth, Charles J Guiteau, Leon Czolgosz and Lee Harvey Oswald in the run-up to and aftermath of their presidential killings or attempted assassinations.
All of this is done through long melodramatic refrains about American patriotism, hilarious jingles about changing the world with one finger and “going to the Lordy”, with the more engaging scenes involving a drug- induced dialogue between Erica Murray and Clare Bennett.
While jazz hands and tawdry dance routines are in abundance here, the message is well-defined: it is far too easy to change the world with a gun.