Presidential assassins in the new Black Box Theatre production are played by (from left) Brant Peitersen, Emmalee Hilburn, David Miller, Tommy Ratkiewicz-Stierwalt (seated), Mark McGinn, Sara Nicole Wegener, Jonathan Turner, Ben Graham and Tom Vaccaro.

MOLINE — In the wake of the tragic events this past weekend in El Paso and Dayton, it’s only natural to wonder what creates a killer.

Any of us might possess the impulse from time to time, but what is it that makes some people follow through on it?

This question is at the core of "Assassins," the current production at the Black Box Theatre in Moline. In fact, "Assassins" goes a step further by collecting the four successful and five unsuccessful presidential assassins to examine the motives behind their actions.

Oh, it's also a musical. And it's…funny?

"What’s surprised me most about bringing this show to life is that it’s a lot lighter and funnier than I expected simply from reading the script," said director David Miller. "Even though it’s a very dark comedy, it stays very light-hearted."

"The show touches on some very heavy themes, including race and immigration, but the music tends to be lighter," he added. "The humor in the songs is what keeps the show from being too heavy. I’m not sure how well it would work as a straight play."

With a book by John Weidman and music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, "Assassins" premiered Off-Broadway in 1990; the 2004 Broadway production won five Tony Awards and three Drama Desk Awards.

Characters include all nine successful and would-be presidential assassins from 1865 through 1981, ranging from John Wilkes Booth through Lee Harvey Oswald and John Hinckley Jr.

Miller also plays Giuseppe Zangara (1900 – 1933), an Italian immigrant who tried to assassinate then-President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt on Feb. 15, 1933, 17 days before Roosevelt's inauguration, during a speech by Roosevelt in Miami. Zangara was executed by electric chair in Florida that March.

Miller had to jump into the part after the actor he originally cast dropped out, after rehearsals were already underway in July.

"I’m a collaborative director," he said. "I count on my actors, and everyone has input into what happens on stage. Seeing it from their perspective, especially in the big group numbers, gives me another chance to see what works and what doesn’t."

"This might be the edgiest, most confrontational show we've done here," Miller said, and indeed, the Black Box is cautioning patrons that the production contains adult language and gunshots.

According to the director, though, these elements are a necessary component of a show that delves deep into the psyche of killers in general and assassins in particular.

"We’re looking at these historical figures through the eyes of someone who’s possibly crazy, so it's understandable, if a little surprising, that some of the characters come off as sympathetic and almost endearing," he said. 

Miller also believes that "Assassins" is especially relevant in today's adversarial political environment.

"With all the heated rhetoric we hear now, there's no middle ground, so everyone thinks they’re right and there's no room for other opinions," he said. "Well, every one of these assassins thinks they’re right, too. With a couple of exceptions, they thought they were doing what was right, not only for themselves but for the country.

"I think this show gives a new definition of what it means to be patriotic: Each of these characters is patriotic in his or her own mind, which shows how some people can twist the meaning of the word to justify actions that horrify and haunt the rest of us."


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