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Signature Theatre’s ‘Assassins’ takes a shot at humanizing history’s villains

Signature Theatre's "Assassins" tells the stories of nine historical figures who killed or tried to kill U.S. presidents. (Christopher Mueller/Signature Theatre)

Finding empathy for one’s character is a fundamental step in the acting process. But for the cast of the musical “Assassins,” that step is more like a leap of faith.

A comedic, nonlinear fantasia about nine people who tried to kill U.S. presidents — four of them successfully — “Assassins” imagines a reality in which these villains of history not only cross paths but even push one another to commit their unspeakable deeds, which are depicted with varying degrees of artistic license. Featuring music and lyrics by legendary composer Stephen Sondheim and a book by John Weidman, the subversive show premiered off-Broadway in 1990, then won five Tonys for its 2004 Broadway revival.

Last week, an Eric Schaeffer-helmed production of “Assassins” kicked off at Signature Theatre. So how do the actors go about understanding such notorious real-life figures?

“Everybody wants to be seen, and I think that’s something that’s uber-relatable,” actor Tracy Lynn Olivera says. “We all just want to be noticed and heard, and for better and for worse — mostly worse — all of these people just wanted somebody to listen to them.”

As the time-hopping characters bond over drinks, drugs and disdain, “Assassins” explores the motivations that pushed each one to the edge. Here’s a look at five of the show’s infamous characters and how the actors portraying them tapped into their troubled minds.

Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington; through Sept. 29, $40-$110.

John Wilkes Booth (played by Vincent Kempski)

Kempski came into “Assassins” knowing the broad strokes of Booth’s story — Ford’s Theatre, “sic semper tyrannis” and so on. As Kempski further explored the bitter actor and Southern sympathizer who murdered Abraham Lincoln in 1865, he found more nuance than his high school history books had let on.

“Booth was surprisingly a family man,” Kempski says. “He was really loyal to his friends. He was like a prankster — everyone loved him. A lot of people really didn’t believe that he did it. They couldn’t fathom it.”

Unearthing that humanity helped Kempski better understand Booth, whose distress over the Civil War’s death toll — illustrated in the show via “The Ballad of Booth” — gives the character an emotional core.

“He was doing it for the betterment of the country, but he had a personal stake in it,” Kempski says. “I think he was incredibly driven because of loss in his life. Yeah, he was on the wrong side of history. But to him, it wasn’t that. … I try to approach it as feeling justified that Booth was doing what was right, at least in his mind.”

Charles J. Guiteau (played by Bobby Smith)

If Booth forever etched his name into the American consciousness, it’s with a fitting sense of irony that the needy writer Guiteau — the man who fatally shot James Garfield at a D.C. train station in 1881 — has seemingly seen his legacy erased.

“I don’t think anybody knows who Charles Guiteau is, which is great, and I didn’t either,” Smith says. “I went down the rabbit hole, whether it was helpful or not.”

The first thing Smith learned: “He couldn’t get laid.” In fact, Guiteau had so little luck during his five-plus years living at the Oneida Community, a New York religious commune that practiced group marriage, that the women there nicknamed him “Charles Git-out.” While Smith says he first honors the script, having a broader understanding of Guiteau’s eccentric persona helps him deliver a more grounded performance.

“ ‘Crazy’ is such a strange buzzword these days, and you can’t play that as an objective anyway,” Smith says. “The idea of the authenticity, of what you get from reading about [the real-life person], marries into the text. It’s fun. It’s hard, but fun.”

Giuseppe Zangara (played by Ian McEuen)

Zangara has a uniquely tragic backstory: The 5-foot-1 Italian immigrant suffered from chronic abdominal pains, which he said started when his father forced him into manual labor as a child. In 1933, Zangara channeled his misery into a frenzied attempt to shoot then-President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt — but instead struck five bystanders, including Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak, who died a few weeks later.

“I have not experienced searing fire in my stomach from the age of 6,” McEuen says. “So I really had to try and find things in my life or the world today that I could sort of place in my mind as substitutions for the things that [Zangara] went through.”

Specifically, McEuen draws on a personal ordeal from 2014, when he found himself coping with constant pain due to torn cartilage in his hips. A year passed before the condition was diagnosed and surgically repaired.

“I was a different person back then,” McEuen says. “It didn’t drive me crazy, and I didn’t try to kill a president, but … I could use that to inhabit this person who is so very different from me.”

Sara Jane Moore (played by Tracy Lynn Olivera)

In September 1975, 17 days after Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (played in this production by Rachel Zampelli) was thwarted by Secret Service agents as she aimed a pistol at Gerald Ford, Moore launched an assassination attempt of her own — missing Ford with a revolver from 40 feet away.

“Even in, like, AP history, you don’t learn about the woman that shot at Gerald Ford and missed,” Olivera says. “Literally nobody cares.”

Moore is now 89, having been released from prison in 2007. That gave Olivera an unusual resource: actual footage of her character. As Olivera watched interviews with Moore from the past decade, she was struck by how the would-be assassin came across as “down-to-earth and really not batty at all” — in sharp contrast to her frantic portrayal onstage.

“I have to go with what the text says,” Olivera says. “But knowing what I know about her has made it a little bit tricky for me. Does she deserve anything from us? No. But she is a person that’s still alive, so I feel one percent obligated to honor the person that she actually is.”

Lee Harvey Oswald (played by Sam Ludwig)

Ludwig pulls double duty in “Assassins” as the show’s narrator, the Balladeer, and as Oswald. The actor says he was surprised to learn he shared certain political views with the man who killed John F. Kennedy in 1963 — albeit, of course, on a much less radical scale.

“He is obviously presented [with] a humanist portrayal in this show,” Ludwig says. “But even just thinking about him in the larger geopolitical context, I find him very easy to empathize with.”

Although the show opens at a fairground shooting gallery as the assassins — who also include Leon Czolgosz (Lawrence Redmond), Samuel Byck (Christopher Bloch) and John Hinckley Jr. (Evan Casey) — are handed their firearms, Oswald is nowhere to be found. When the character finally does make his entrance, “Assassins” uses his story to comment on the corruption of the American dream with the sobering number “Something Just Broke.”

“The show is always trying to highlight something rotten at the core of certain American values,” Ludwig says. “Sometimes it gets presented as the assassins are twisting them, and sometimes it’s more like, ‘Well, maybe the whole thing is a little bit questionable.’ ”