EgoPo Classic Theater begins its themed season on American Vaudeville with a synthesis of 19th-century history and post-modern feminism in its original interpretation of THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES. An all-female ensemble portrays the infamous outlaw and his posse, presenting the story of their rise and fall in the format of a traveling stage show told through personal accounts, dramatic reenactments, and a cappella songs. The inventive casting empowers women—both the actresses and the audience members–to experience our country’s Western adventure as its key male players, instead of the usual gender-based stereotypes of saloon girls, wives, and schoolteachers. It’s the kind of unique, imaginative entertainment that we’ve come to expect from the smart and talented team at EgoPo.
Director Brenna Geffers conceived the idea and devised the production not just as a theatrical performance, but as a total environmental experience. The audience enters the James Gang’s hideout by a secret side door, through an alley, and up a fire-escape stairway to the third floor of Plays and Players, which has been transformed by set-and-prop designer Doug Greene into a genuine 1880s-style saloon, dime museum, and vaudeville stage. The design is impressive and immersive. The floor of “The Damsel Dime Museum” is covered with sawdust, an old Victrola plays vintage records, and an interesting assortment of antique photos, taxidermy specimens, nooses, and other period memorabilia are on display. Seats are arranged around aged wooden barrels, where you can set down your drinks and bags of popcorn, for sale throughout the show at the bar in the next room.
Based on Geffers’ exhaustive research, the script employs details from actual newspaper reports, popular dime novels, contemporary folk songs, touring road shows, and letters by the desperados themselves. Was Jesse James the romantic renegade hero who stole from the rich to give to the poor, as he and his sympathizers claimed? Or was he a cold-blooded killer who robbed and murdered at will, questioned the fairness of US law, and supported the racist practices of the Confederacy, defeated by the Union in the Civil War? Melanie Julian, who stars as James, delivers both sides of the man and the legend, capturing the fugitive’s remorseless violence and constant paranoia, his increasing weariness, and, ultimately, his misplaced trust, resulting in the fatal error that led to his inevitable demise at the age of 34. Her performance is nuanced, her Old West accent consistent, and her demeanor appropriate for a man who lived and died by the gun.
Supporting Julian are Amanda Schoonover, whose ever expressive face and Western drawl bring life to her dual roles as Jesse’s wife/cousin/comrade Zee and the unsuccessful bounty-hunter who infiltrated his gang; Kate Brennan as the morphine-addicted and booze-swilling bandit Charles Ford; Colleen Hughes as his little brother Robert, whose youthful nervousness conceals the boy’s murderous greed and duplicity; and Maria Konstantinidis as Billy, another Gang member who also serves as the vaudevillian emcee, announcing the scenes and changing the title cards. The women’s macho posturing and “badass” bravado is accentuated by their dirt-streaked faces, omnipresent six-shooters, and authentic costumes by Natalia De La Torre. Especially effective and memorable are the slow-motion sequences of death by gunshot, mimed to perfection by the excellent cast.
THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES
Devised and directed by Brenna Geffers
October 3-28, 2012
EgoPo Classic Theater
Plays and Players Theater, 3rd floor
1714 Delancey Place
Philadelphia, PA 19103
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