By Jim Rutter
FOR THE INQUIRER
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 egopo.org