History? Murder? Disillusionment and the American Dream? All these elements will collide this weekend in Torn Ticket II’s musical one-act, “Assassins,” according to director Peter Spearman and assistant director Jessica Pearson, both second-year Ph.D. students in Theater and Performance Studies at Tufts.
According to Pearson, the main characters of “Assassins” are an amalgamation of historical figures who have assassinated or attempted to assassinate a U.S. president. These figures include John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated Abraham Lincoln; Lee Harvey Oswald, who assassinated JFK; Charles Guiteau, who assassinated James Garfield; Leon Czolgosz, who assassinated William McKinley; Sara Jane Moore and Squeaky Fromme, who both separately attempted to assassinate Gerald Ford; John Hinckley Jr., who attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan; Sam Byck, who attempted to assassinate Nixon; and Giuseppe Zangara, who attempted to assassinate FDR.
Because the assassins come from different eras in history, Spearman explained that the play does not situate itself in any specific point in history.
“There’s no real sense of time in the play,” he said. “People from the future come back to the past [and] vice versa. It’s not as linear as I think we’re all used to.”
This ambiguous timeline, according to Spearman and Pearson, informs the set and costuming decisions.
“The play is sort of set in this weird, un-world that is limbo-land,” Spearman said.
Pearson explained how the design team helped to create this “un-world.”
“We have a really great design team,” Pearson said. “We work together really collaboratively to create something that gives us this unreal space to play in, that’s still kind of grounded in particular moments of reality and historical references. The costumes are a gesture toward these real historical figures without being a super realistic re-creation of what they actually wore.”
Spearman emphasized the balance they’ve tried to strike between the historical and the contemporary.
“There are historical elements to each thing, but without totally losing the shape of today,” he said. “I think that’s so much of what carries it, is having these nods to the historical, but keeping it [along] contemporary lines.”
Spearman explained that at the heart of this play is the is flawed idea of the American Dream, and this is reflected in the set design.
“So much of what we talk about in the play is this idea of the American Dream and what’s built up on top of the American Dream and ultimately that if the foundation is rotting, then what’s on top of it never exists,” Spearman said. “We looked at images of Gilded Age spaces that are falling apart now, and that’s where [our set designer, senior Jonathan Rooney] took a lot of his inspiration.”
Spearman noted that this particular musical deals with many controversial issues, including violence against political leaders and frustration with the American political system.
“My own personal political beliefs mean that I’m upset with the state of the presidency, but I’m also not a person who sees violence as the answer, and I think that we have to find this third way, and this play asks us to take that third way,” he said. “I think the lives of these assassins are ultimately ruined by the violence. And so it’s about taking this energy and these frustrations and finding a different way to channel them. And I don’t think the play gives us any answers, but it at least gets us asking the right questions.”
One of the challenges of directing this production, Spearman explained, is that the musical will take place in Cohen Auditorium rather than the Balch Arena Theater.
“That was actually the funniest thing about proposing the show was finding out we were going to be in this giant auditorium, as opposed to this really pretty arena theater that we have,” Spearman said. “People … almost made it sound like it’s a bad thing … [But] a play that’s about violence, and that has guns in it, in the wrong space can send a very different message. And I think when you have something that’s so much a theater — it’s so much performance, it’s so unreal — the space can promote that, and can help you achieve the goals you’re trying to achieve. So I’m ecstatic that we’re in Cohen. I think it’s going to be really, really fun, and we get a scale in there that we don’t get in Balch.”
Senior Justin An, playing the role of the Balladeer and Oswald, explained that getting to work on “Assassins” is an exciting experience as an actor.
“I think all of the actors have been afforded a lot of freedom to explore, and it’s not something that I’ve been given a lot with my previous experiences with directors — not only using what Peter and Jess have as guidance, but also being able to shape the story in my own way,” An said. “And I think experimentation has been, from the get-go, a key facet of the rehearsal process.”
According to An, all of the actors besides him are first- or second-year students.
Spearman added, “We’ve managed to luck out with 10 really wonderful actors … We’re really fortunate.”
Assassins premieres in Cohen Auditorium on Thursday, March 29 at 8 p.m. and will also be performed on Saturday, March 31 at 1:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tickets can be purchased online or in the Aidekman Box Office.