[ theater reviews ]
The Assassination of Jesse James
The ensemble-created The Assassination of Jesse James, directed by Brenna Geffers, explores the myth and matter of the famous bank robber (1847-1882) in a broadly theatrical style with a twist: James, his gang and his pursuers are all played by women (costumed with veracity by Natalia de la Torre), adding another interpretive layer to the tale of America’s first celebrity outlaw.
Melanie Julian (pictured) makes James a brooding loner, both inspired and repulsed by his hero “Bloody Bill” Anderson, whose executions of Union prisoners James witnessed as a teenager serving in his Confederate guerilla force. Amanda Schoonover plays James’ wife Zee, and also an infiltrator scheming to capture the famous killer. Kate Brennan’s Charlie Ford is torn between loyalty to James and obligation to her callow brother Robert, played by Colleen Hughes, and Maria Konstantinidis serves admirably in multiple roles and leads the show’s singing. All are detailed, genuine portrayals, all the more impressive for the skill with which the actors transform into a rich variety of supporting characters.
Geffers’ fascinating production maintains a documentary feel. The ensemble often steps out of character to quote direct sources, establishing how James’ exploits were immediately fictionalized (his Robin Hood reputation was pure invention) via the propaganda war he waged to justify his bloody crimes. This production tries to cut away the legend. The gang’s pangs of conscience, the bleakness of life on the run and an unromantic portrayal of violence counter the allure of the grinning, boyish outlaw that’s James’ legacy. When James says, “I don’t know how to be a-feared,” it’s not with the jaw-clenched, squinting certainty of a typical male action hero; in Julian’s complex portrayal, it’s a realization of limitations.
It’s oversimplifying to credit femininity for this humanizing approach, but our awareness of girls pretending to be boys who want to be men highlights the play’s anti-myth insights. Jesse James offers an entertaining glimpse of late-19th-century culture and its relevance to modern issues of celebrity and “reality.” The play’s dark epilogue explaining the survivors’ fates shows that no one associated with James could maintain, let alone profit from, his mythical status for long.
Through Oct. 28, $25-$50, Plays & Players Theater, 1714 Delancey Pl., 267-273-1414, egopo.org.
A Slow Air
The starkness of Meghan Jones’ scenic design — steel support beams, a suggested airport runway, battered bar furniture — doesn’t hint at the rich, intimate family story that develops in Scottish playwright David Harrower’s A Slow Air. The bleak picture, completed by a video screen showing distant planes slowly crossing blue skies, forces us to consider how the story of estranged brother and sister, Athol (Brian McCann) and Morna (Emma Gibson), relates to larger issues in director Tom Reing’s production with Inis Nua.
The personal tale is satisfying enough, really. Gibson and McCann are fascinating as the middle-aged sibs (with convincingly thick Glaswegian accents) making moves toward reconnecting after 14 years. The catalyst is Morna’s son, who makes a clumsy attempt to bring his mother and uncle together on his 21st birthday, and as the reunion approaches, the monologues begin to merge as the suspense mounts. Harrower, introduced to local audiences through Theatre Exile’s gripping productions of his equally challenging Blackbird and Knives in Hens, unspools their intersecting tales in a series of alternating monologues over a sleek 75 minutes.
If you’re wondering where the planes come in, this is all tied to the failed terrorist attack on the Glasgow Airport on June 30, 2007, when two men drove a Jeep packed with explosives through the doors. (In Harrower’s world, the would-be terrorists lived in Athol’s neighborhood.) Actual TV news reports from the attack, projected on the back screen, occasionally punctuate scenes. What’s disturbing about them is how undisturbing they are; more than a decade after 9/11, we’re far too accustomed to how TV news portrays violence and its aftermath.
The global issues resulting in the terrorist attack don’t dovetail exactly with the family split, but that makes its own point: Life, unlike most fiction, doesn’t make obvious connections between interpersonal and international situations. But juxtaposing them forces us to mull the parallels.
Through Oct. 21, $20-$25, Off-Broad Street Theater, 1636 Sansom St., 215-454-9776, inisnuatheatre.org.
The past 30 years have seen a fall in Kennedy stock. The family that once represented heroism and sacrifice tends to be portrayed now as a collection of power- and sex-hungry vulgarians — from Camelot to “came a lot,” as it were. So it’s heartening to see a positive spin in Jack Holmes’ small-scale, touching one-man play RFK.
It’s possible that people under 50 won’t instantly know that RFK is JFK’s younger brother, Robert Francis Kennedy. A quick bio: As his brother’s attorney general, RFK famously cracked down on organized crime and enforced civil rights. After John Kennedy’s death, he won a seat in the Senate and became a presidential front-runner himself in 1968, but was assassinated the night he won the California primary.
Historical monodramas are, for me, a tough sell. Almost always, they oversimplify and overpraise. And what is an actor to do when playing someone who is instantly recognizable?
RFK mostly avoids these potential pitfalls. Russ Widdall’s no ringer for Robert Kennedy, but he’s a fine actor who clearly connects with the character. He’s mastered the accent and vocal mannerisms, and looks just enough like Kennedy that it’s not jarring to see him next to actual newsreel footage (one of the many forms of period media employed in a sort of recurring collage by director Ginger Dayle — ideally, this conceit would be more seamlessly executed, but somehow the almost-homemade quality emphasizes the humanity behind the whole enterprise).
Robert Kennedy was a controversial figure, dogged by allegations of high-handed manipulation. But the person we see here is an enormously likeable, deeply principled man who continually worked to prove himself worthy of his family name. (A trope in RFK is that the Kennedys overlooked and underestimated this middle child.) It’s fair to say the show is pretty much a love letter to its subject, but what makes it work is that it’s at least as much about the political turmoil he lived through — and fought to change — as it is about the man himself. Vietnam and civil rights are front and center, as they should be.
RFK will be self-recommending to many people, but I hope some younger audiences get there, too. The show — and RFK himself — deserves it.
Through Oct. 21, $24-$26, The Adrienne, 2030 Sansom St., 215-563-7500, newcitystage.org.
—David Anthony Fox
A Bright New Boise