The early 1900s were a time of anti-immigrant sentiment, labor unrest, police violence and imperial expansion. Enter an assassin, Leon Czolgosz (played by Jason Williams), with a plan to rid the world of one more tyrant: President William McKinley. The Magnetic Theatre tackles the disturbing overlap of free speech and political violence in its world premiere of In the Assassins’ Garden, a new work by local playwright David Brendan Hopes, onstage through Sunday, June 30.
On the surface, the play dramatizes the 1901 assassination of the president in Buffalo, N.Y., at the Pan-American Exposition in the Temple of Music. The garden, however, is the location of the play’s exploration of violence as a political act. The garden is where a rupture in time and space happens, and, outside of historical possibility, assassins can meet each other and even talk directly with their victims
In the garden, Czolgosz encounters the Italian anarchist-assassin Gaetano Bresci (Eugene Jones), someone he admires. But, more troubling, is the presence of King Umberto I, who slowly bleeds to death in front of them. He didn’t know he was a tyrant, the king admits, as he slumps to the ground. Bresci and Czolgosz confront the human behind the caricature they and other radicals created in order to justify violence.
At the center of this play is the anarchist and orator Emma Goldman (Katie Jones), an immigrant from Imperial Russia who electrified audience around the U.S. with her calls for revolution, emancipation and sexual freedom. Jones’ is the standout performance of the play, and she gives a dynamic rendering of Goldman’s bravado and intellectual capacity to persuade and indoctrinate. Goldman knew a “good learner” when she saw one, and Czolgosz was open to her influence, as the play reveals.
Czolgosz attended one of Goldman’s lectures and was among the group who accompanied her to a train station in Chicago before she left for another event. He even asked her for a reading list of good anarchist books. Goldman claimed she’d never met him. Jones’ capacity to channel Goldman’s unique skills as a propagandist and public speaker rightly places her role as the fulcrum of the play.
Two bourgeois women with a penchant for sipping tea and ordering people around appear as the comic relief in the show. Barbara, a lady of society (Mike Yow), and Edith, her companion (Will Storrs) find themselves running into Emma Goldman without really understanding why she loathes them so much. Their wigs slightly askew, Barbara and Edith clutch their pearls.
A glaring anachronism in costume design is the Che Guevara T-shirt that Emma Goldman wears. When she sheds her staid skirt and button-up top for an all-black ensemble of leather and tights, it seems truer to the spirit of sexual badassery that Goldman exuded, but Goldman in Guevara? No way.
All things are possible when a public figure can articulate the dissatisfaction of a group and rally them to a cause. Political violence, in this case against kings and presidents, landed Goldman in fear for her life. The McKinley assassination haunted her. The radicals of the left, like the anarchists, embraced change by any means, even if that meant glamorizing violence. When they meet in the garden, however, the audience has the opportunity to imagine these historical figures with more doubts and humility.
WHAT: In the Assassins’ Garden
WHERE: The Magnetic Theatre Company, 375 Depot St., themagnetictheatre.com
WHEN: Through Sunday, June 30. Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m. $23