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Judith Newmark
Post-Dispatch Theater Critic
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Like a lot of people, Joe Hanrahan is fascinated by the legend of Jesse James, the 19th-century Missouri outlaw who invented the bank robbery and who never spent a single day in jail.

Unlike most people, Hanrahan takes his passions public. He is the author of a new play, "The Ballad of Jesse James." Midnight Productions, the troupe that Hanrahan and David Wassilak founded last season, will stage its world premiere this month at the Forum for Contemporary Art, with Hanrahan directing and Wassilak in the title role.

A memory play, "Jesse James" opens as Frank James and Cole Younger meet after 25 years. The two old men recall the adventures of their outlaw years.

It's a fascinating story, familiar to many Missourians. Jesse James, who fought for the South during the Civil War, really may have perceived himself as being outside of the law - that is, out of any law or government that he felt represented him. Or maybe he was just greedy. In any case, Hanrahan says, he was extremely good at what he did. He and his gang stole a fortune - $60,000 in their first robbery alone - and enjoyed enormous popularity. "They had an entire state of people who hid them, who fed them and their horses," Hanrahan said. "That's why he never was caught."

James died in 1882, shot in the back in what Hanrahan describes as a "state-sponsored assassination," because of the reward money the governer had offered for him, "dead or alive."

His brother, Frank, perhaps fearing the same fate, turned himself in - and even then was so wary about the law that he agreed to surrender only on the steps of state Capitol, in public, and accompanied by a respected newspaperman and noted James apologist, Jonathan Newman Edwards. (Edwards compared Jesse James to Robin Hood and said he and his gang were more honest than the carpetbaggers.)

Frank James was tried three times and acquitted three times. "People either loved the James brothers or feared them so much that no one would testify against them," Hanrahan said. "There are even photos that show members of a jury that acquitted him standing with him, smiling proudly.

"The things the James gang did - robbing banks, robbing trains - had some kind of appeal for people who felt that they had been robbed themselves. Jesse James was the rock star of his day."

Although the show takes place in the 19th century, don't look for a lavish period piece. "Jesse James" will be a lean production, similar to the performances Midnight staged last year: Eric Bogosian's "Pounding Nails in the Floor with My Forehead" at the Forum and a double bill of "Nails" with Hanrahan's "Life after Death" at the Lemp Brewery. The cast is small - Wassilak, Hanrahan as Frank James and Larry Dell in all the other roles, as well as providing period music.

"We designed thisartist Margaret Kilgallen. Kilgallen's installation, created on the walls of a room at the Forum, deals with typography, particularly frontier signage, the kind of signs we associate with saloons or old-time train stations. In other words, the piece, like the play, offers a contemporary exploration of images of the Old West. Hanrahan is particularly pleased that the actors will be in front of huge letters that spell out the phrase "Let it ride."

He and Wassilak, both veteran actor/directors on the St. Louis theater scene, had known each other for years and worked together several times before they joined forces to form Midnight Productions.

"We never actually sat down and said, `We are going to do this and this and this,' " Wassilak said. "We don't have a mission statement. But we have our own perspective: Keep it simple. And, having our own company, we can choose what we want to do, choose the style, and try to make it come off."

Midnight's 1998-99 season will continue with a January production of St even Dietz's "Private Eyes," a romantic triangle that raises questions about deception and reality, and a June production of Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot." (The St. Louis Black Repertory Company is also staging "Godot" this season, in April. It's not ideal. But, considering that 1999 is the 50th anniversary of the modern classic, there are bound to be many productions all year long, all over the world. A city with multiple Godots will be in good company, no doubt led by Dublin or Paris.)

The Ballad of Jesse James
Midnight Productions
Reviewed by Brian McCary
KDHX Radio

It is a shame that the memory of Jesse James has been relegated to tourist bait for Meremac Caverns. As the Midnight Theater Company's current production of The Ballad of Jesse James shows, it is a tale of family ties, loyalty, misdirected anger, even class conflict and public relations. The consequences of growing up amidst irregular warfare without mercy are as relevant in Ireland, Bosnia, the Middle East, and perhaps even modern American cities today as they were in post-bellum Missouri during the reconstruction. The same politicization of individual acts which resonates currently in the Bill and Ken show worked the same way over a century ago as editors railed against either the James Gang or the Pinkerton detectives.

I could practically imagine the whole evening as soon as I saw that David Wassilak was to be Jesse James. He was all that I pictured: intense, slightly moody, never using five words when four would do. Joe Hanrahan took the role of the theatrical Frank James, a Shakespeare quoting older brother with more caution - or perhaps less initiative - than his notorious younger brother. For me, the real treat of the evening was Larry Dell, whose portrayal of Cole Younger was quite fluid, switching back and forth between youth and old age at the tip of a hat. Cole's sympathies are clearly divided. His friendship with Frank is deeply rooted in their shared wartime experiences, and riding with Jesse and Frank brought far more excitement, money, and fame than farming ever could have. Still, he seems to have resented the brash arrogance of the young gang leader, and certainly faults him for disloyalty and perhaps cowardice.

Jesse James's childhood was riddled with border conflict, guerrilla warfare, family tragedy and wartime atrocities, but also included a surprising foundation of literacy and piety. The robberies were not done out of pure greed, and they served as an outlet for a righteous rage at the federal government, it's soldiers, agents, and capital institutions. Although Jesse was clearly in it for the money, he could not have not have survived without the willing support of many strangers who shared his dim view of the legitimacy of the banking institutions.

The main pivot point for the story, to which we return three times, is Minnesota, the scene of the James gang's final failure after a string of spectacular successes. Each return is from the perspective of a different character, and each paints a progressively less flattering picture of Jesse. This triptych is set before a thorough and engaging biography of both of the James brothers. In turn, this biography is framed, to an extent, in the minds of two old men, long time friends Frank James and Cole Younger, reminiscing fondly about the golden days of their youth, when they just happened to be bush raiders and outlaws. Joe Hanrahan's script is well researched and it flows smoothly, with a viewpoint which lies somewhere between objective and sympathetic.

In addition to playing Cole Younger, Larry Dell chipped in with narration duties and musical arrangements, which had a nicely understated feeling. When the three outlaws gather around to sing "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" over the grave of a dead child, it is in the flat, short tones of life-long country Christians with the absolute conviction that life is hard but God is on their side. The set - three chairs in a modern art gallery - is a little unsettling, but it serves to focus our attention on the story at hand, which is a powerful one. Although this is a long one act with no intermission, I never felt my attention wavering.

The Ballad of Jesse James is original, thought provoking, intelligent, and timely, precisely the kind of theater that St. Louis is capable of creating. If there is a danger in the story, it lies in getting caught up in the romance of the outlaw. Move Jesse from the safety of the nineteenth century to the contemporary militia movement, and the implications become much darker. Some may have thought of him as Robin Hood, but to others, he was a violent southern sympathizer, a liar and a thief, too lazy to farm, too willing to apply his scriptural vision selectively. In accepting that danger, the Midnight Theater Company has broken open a vault to creative riches.

The Ballad of Jesse James
By Joe Hanrahan (Midnight Productions)
By Sally Cragin

Riverfront Times

Not only now but in their day, the 19th-century James Gang were models of moral ambiguity. They robbed banks but supported their families; honored the practice of fraternal love, yet manipulated and were betrayed by those nearest, if not dearest. These paradoxes are artfully and enthrallingly explored in Joe Hanrahan's The Ballad of Jesse James. This three-man show presents native Missourians Jesse and Frank, with cohort Cole Younger, as inevitable offspring of the most riven period of American history, the Civil War. Playwright/performer Hanrahan has written a cinema-style narrative, which begins with an extended flashback. He plays Frank as an old man, reliving his wild past in a touring medicine show with equally ancient Cole (Larry Dell, who plays other characters and provides guitar accompaniment). Describing their fantastic exploits, Frank explains, "We all lost brothers," and he's talking about the war as much as the desperado days of the gang.

For these men, geography was destiny, and there was no "compromise." A Union state, Missouri harbored myriad Southern sympathizers who joined rebel bands in groups called irregulars. Frank left home to fight with Quantrill's Raiders at the start of the war and was joined by Jesse, who found a sponsor in "Bloody" Bill Anderson. With a motto ("Lay waste") and a cheer (the chilling rebel yell), the irregulars invaded Lawrence, Kan., in a bitter border war. "He was a natural at this work," comments Frank about Jesse, who takes special relish in quoting from Proverbs while slaying a chaplain.

Barely two years after Lee's surrender, the nascent gang begins a string of robberies to retrieve "carpetbagger money" lodged in local banks. "I never thought of myself as an inventor," Jesse marvels. "Guess everybody's got one good idea." These guerrillas are motivated by justifiable anger about the Union's lingering hostility toward Missourians who'd served on the other side -- and by an appetite for mayhem whetted by wartime. How you gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've looted Paree?

The skill of Hanrahan's script is that he explores the social and economic conditions that produced the James Gang and manages to seat his argument in a recognizable -- even appealing -- historical moment. There are names and dates in this narrative, but there are also remarkable pieces of stagecraft. Most notable is a scene in which the gang robs its first train (west of the Mississippi, that is -- the Reno brothers get the nod for originating the crime). The cast steps off the stage, and Younger displays a raffish charm as he tells the audience, "We'll not be relieving the lovely ladies." Meanwhile, Jesse terrorizes the engineers and later begins writing press releases, in part as alibis for crimes the gang is unjustly accused of. "Jesse didn't invent the train robbery, but he sure did perfect it," notes Frank.

But trouble looms -- the Pinkerton Detective Agency, guided by the "eye that never sleeps." One pivotal scene is enacted three times (and explained more coherently with each retelling). This portrays the gang's last expedition -- an ill-fated mission to Minnesota (Jesse's idea), where a bank robbery goes awry and the fraternal gang is shot up. Jesse had enlisted Cole's younger brother, much to Younger's displeasure. Scattering to the four winds, the James boys escape; the Youngers surrender. At the weekend's performances at the Missouri History Museum, the dim lighting underscored the shadowy unfolding tragedy, as Cole decides to stay with his injured brother (who miraculously survives long enough to serve prison time).

Jesse James should be required viewing at schools because of its unflinching vision of complexly criminal characters, as well as a believable historical context. This gang is literally a family, depending on others at their risk. (Jesse was eventually murdered by the younger brother of a new recruit, after the Younger men were in jail.) There's no glamour in the bloodshed but plenty of understanding, thanks to a superb cast. David Wassilak plays Jesse as a sternly self-righteous killer who never asks for pity. As Frank, Hanrahan has a curmudgeonly dignity, yet there's a dramatic frisson every time the character slays. Larry Dell imbues Younger with an insouciance -- this is just a job, not a mission -- that's just right. Between vignettes, he provides wistful period balladry on guitar. Director Mary Schnitzler has an agreeably light hand -- one can imagine this story being screamed from the stage, with plenty of gunshot f/x -- but subtlety pays off here. And her skill and the actors' care cut larger-than-life legends down to size.

Judith Newmark
Post-Dispatch Theater Critic
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

The legend of the outlaw Jesse James still has a lot of appeal today, more than 100 years after his violent life ended with a shot in the back. It inspired Joe Hanrahan to write "The Ballad of Jesse James," which Midnight Productions (the troupe he founded last season with David Wassilak) has mounted. The bare-bones, energy-packed performance evokes the allure of outlaw life in the aftermath of the Civil War, but needs more work to reach its full potential.

Like an obscure musical about James called "Diamond Studs," Hanrahan's play offers a political basis for James' criminal career. The men in his gang were all Confederate irregulars. Jayhawkers conducted a violent raid on the James' family farm; Jesse James and his brother, Frank, rode with Quantrill in the "bloody Kansas" battles.

This, the play makes clear, had little to do with feelings about slavery but a lot to do with political and familial ties to the South. After the war, former irregulars couldn't vote, run for office ("Were you planning to run for office?" Frank asks his brother wryly) or make a living. They felt estranged from a government they no longer acknowledged as theirs. Of course they didn't live within the law, Hanrahan argues; they saw themselves as outlaws in a literal sense.

Hanrahan - who also directs and plays Frank James - doesn't push his argument further (for example, to its implications for modern America, where people like Timothy McVeigh might claim to be outlaws along the same lines). But he does capture the romance of outlaw life.

Wassilak plays Jesse James with an understated manner that hints at oceans of self-confidence, something the man who invented bank robbery must have had. He speaks quietly but his gaze is steady; he gives the rebel yell with the passion of a rock star at the microphone. Hanrahan, as the older brother, makes a good balance; he's smaller and more solid that the lanky Wassilak, providing a physical counterpoint that suggests the gang's strength. (Wassilak has the nerve.) Larry Dell gives a strong performance in all the other parts - outlaw Cole Younger, Kansas City newspaperman John Newman Edwards and the narrator. He also plays guitar and sings folk music to help establish the mood.

This is an extremely stripped-down production. Costumer Betsy Krausnick evokes an era with the simplest period pieces - band-collar shirts, duster coats. The set is a couple of chairs, but that's OK; there's also a terrific "backdrop" at the Forum for Contemporary Art, an installation by artist Margaret Kilgallen. It frames the performers with the apt words, "Let It Ride."

But why is the cast itself stripped down so far? Good as Dell is, there is something miserly about using him in so many roles. It makes no sense to have Younger and Edwards played by one actor, and the other duties could be divided between them logically (music to Younger, narrative to Edwards). The play looks too much like boys playing outlaw, especially when they're waving their pistols; one more actor would truly flesh things out.

Also, too much of the story is left to narration, an easy out that breaks the mood. For example, the narration of the James gang's disastrous Minnesota bank robbery slows a high-action scene to a crawl. But it does not break the mood as much as forgotten lines do. All the actors (including the author) need to get their lines down cold. Every stumble pushes the audience away, into "real life." Why go to the theater for that?


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Revised: October, 2007
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