JESSE JAMES COMES TO LIFE ON STAGE
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
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.
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
Reviewed by Brian McCary
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
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
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,"
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.
JESSE JAMES' NEEDS WORK TO REACH FULL POTENTIAL
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
Revised: October, 2007
© The Midnight Company