Saturday, September 5, 2015

Review: The Assassination of Jesse James

Little of consequence resulted from EgoPo's decision to cast women to retell the story of outlaw Jesse James.

Review: The Assassination of Jesse James

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From L to R: Kate Brennan, Melanie Julian, Maria Konstantinidis, Colleen Hughes and Amanda Schoonover in EgoPo's "The Assassination of Jesse James"

By Jim Rutter


Director Brenna Geffers showed a bit of boldness when casting only women in EgoPo’s The Assassination of Jesse James. Running into traffic is also bold, though not without consequence.

Geffers script consists of text found in dime novels, poems, songs, and newspaper accounts about the legendary outlaw. The play, itself a collage of direct address narrative, dramatization and song, chronicles James’ (Melanie Julian) transition from guerrilla fighter slaughtering Union forces to stage coach robbing bandit.

The writing sparkles with vivid metaphor (James speaks of his guns’ “faces greased and bellies filled with lead"), heroic praise, and vituperative condemnation of a man pilloried as a butcher, lauded as a Robin Hood and who compared himself favorably to Napoleon and William Wallace.

Doug Greene’s meticulous set sits the audience around barrels in a 19th-Century saloon; sawdust covers the floor, framed period photos, hangmen’s nooses and six-shooters adorn the walls. James' posse emerges from behind a curtain with a swagger; their faces dirtied, and chins jutted forward, they rest their hands on pistols like a pack of dogs bearing fangs.

Julian blends formidable audacity with the world-weariness of a man that never “knew a day of perfect peace”. Colleen Hughes infuses the teenaged Robert Ford with a babyfaced innocence, and the rest of the ensemble parses out their parts with a conceit both suitable and expected.

But the female-casting otherwise diminishes the story’s impact. In one pivotal moment of male bonding, James bestows his pistol to the unarmed Robert Ford. To a warrior or outlaw, this transfer teems with solemn significance in a tradition still enacted by modern police and military ceremonies, or the passing down of jersey numbers in sports.

Here, the pair plays it for laughs, demoting it with comedy to the script’s gallows humor and cheap mispronunciations of Dick Liddil’s name. If Geffers intended this as the one feminine take on a masculine tradition, it remains the only instance that finds clarity in her casting.

Otherwise, the performances only soften a spur’s sharp edge, or cloud more interesting aspects of this retelling that reminded of sympathetic portrayals of similar fugitives that had their character forged in the Civil War’s crucible (such as The Outlaw Josey Wales).

In Assassination’s lone fully dramatized scene, Ford’s betrayal appears more a Last Supper’s kiss than a Caesar’s stabbing, rendering the story more Biblical than mythic but otherwise with little consequence to differentiate EgoPo’s take from the source material.


The Assassination of Jesses James. Presented by EgoPo Classic Theater through October 28 in the Third Floor Studio at Plays and Players Theater, 1714 Delancey St. Tickets: $25 to $50. Information: 267-273-1414 or

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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