Theater review: In the Assassins' Garden at The Magnetic
Every generation has a grandiose tendency to think of its own politics as the most extreme that ever existed. In 2019, we believe our voters are the most polarized, our politicians the most mendacious, our media the most biased in the history of the American republic.
So it’s a useful grounding exercise (and a fascinating experience) to look back on an era, not so long ago, when American politics was far more volatile — and deadly.
This is accomplished to tremendous effect by In The Assassins’ Garden, a world premiere by playwright David Brendan Hopes playing at The Magnetic Theatre Company. Set within the turbulent world of early 20th century anarchism, Assassins’ Garden uses a magical realism approach to paint a vivid picture of Gilded Age revolutionaries, as well as the brutal industrialist context in which they were radicalized.
Hopes takes a liberal approach to time and space in Assassins’ Garden. For instance, the moment of a world leader’s death stretches on for minutes, as he and his assassin engage in a poetic dialogue about the implications of the shooting that has just occurred. Likewise, a deceased Italian anarchist hops the boundaries of life and death to give a pep talk to an American revolutionary who is contemplating a similarly violent act.
Then, of course, there is the titular Assassins’ Garden itself, a sort of Elysian Fields of political murderers where John Wilkes Booth and his ilk drink divine nectar and ponder their place in history.
It may take a while for some audience members to get used to this freewheeling narrative style, but once you get the hang of the rules of the game, it’s quite fun to jump from place to place and time to time. It’s also a clever way to convey the global, sweeping nature of the modern anarchist movement at the dawn of the 20th century.
Even those of us who paid attention in U.S. History in high school may have forgotten how much upheaval there was during this period: mass labor strikes, the Spanish American War, the scramble for Africa and other colonial possessions, and the cynical, war-mongering yellow journalism of William Randolph Hearst.
It is within this charged political context that anarchists including Emma Goldman (Katie Jones), Gaetano Bresci (Eugene Jones), and Leon Czolgosz (Jason Williams) decide to fight back. All three are real historical figures — Bresci killed the king of Italy (played here by Will Storrs) in 1900, inspiring Czolgosz to kill American president William McKinley later that year.
Goldman, while not directly implicated in political assassinations of the period, was a hugely influential writer and speaker and appears as a sort of anarchist emcee throughout the play to provide context and a thematic through line.
Director and scenic designer Andrew Gall holds all the pieces tightly together, no small feat for a script that is so discursive. Further context and atmosphere is provided by video and photography work by Jennifer Bennett and Rodney Smith, as well as sound design by Mary Zogzas.
All of the actors in Assassins’ Garden play two or more characters, so the clear and specific costume design by Victoria Smith is vital. Even more important, all the actors differentiate their characters to a degree that it’s never confusing who is speaking at a given time.
Katie Jones is electric as Goldman. Far from getting bogged down in the philosophical language of more than a century ago, she uses Goldman’s words as a springboard to deliver a passionate and emotional message of freedom and revolution. I found myself nodding along as she spoke about the necessity of political murder — not a position I normally hold in the absence of such compelling arguments. Jones brings to life the powerhouse that Goldman was in persuading hundreds of activists to sacrifice their own freedom and, sometimes, lives, in the service of an impossible-seeming ideal.
The main storyline concerns one such convinced revolutionary, a disillusioned steel worker named Leon Czolgosz, played with dark earnestness by Williams. The actor embodies Czolgosz’ iron dedication to the anarchist cause, as well as the complicated emotions surrounding his homosexuality and relationship with fellow steel worker Charles (Adam Olson).
The subject of Czolgosz’ ire is McKinley, played with high-minded bravado by Mike Yow. In a sort of Game of Thrones meets Veep scene, McKinley absentmindedly wonders what color the new American empire will be on the world map, as he laughs with newspaper propagandist Hearst about which of them truly “runs the country.”
A lighter version of their elitism is embodied by Barbara (also Yow) and Edith (Storrs again), “ladies of society” who serve as a hilarious symbol of the conservative, aristocratic Victorian culture against which anarchists such as Goldman were rebelling.
For all the fantastical flourishes that Assassins’ provides, there are chilling reminders that history often repeats itself. In responses to McKinley’s assassination, Hearst, played with cold fanaticism by Tippin, delivers a monologue decrying immigrants who bring “dangerous ideas” to our shores and urging America to “build a wall” of iron ships to stop the flow of these bad hombres. The dark laughter of the audience proved that the message, while a little blunt, was well received.
In The Assassin’s Garden is a clever, poetic, and entertaining work of art that brings to light an often-forgotten period of our history that now, more than ever, we should remember. I only hope the message isn’t too late.
In The Assassin’s Garden plays through June 30 at The Magnetic Theatre Company, 375 Depot St., in Asheville’s River Arts District. Tickets can be purchased at the door or online.
(Photos: Rodney Smith/Tempus Fugit Design, courtesy of The Magnetic Theatre Company)