Among the legends of the Old West, two of its most notorious figures
were Jesse James and Belle Starr. The lives of both outlaws were
documented in countless books and movies, but pairing them never seemed
to occur to historians.
David Freeman made that connection in 1975 when he wrote "Jesse and
the Bandit Queen," which Orange Coast College's Repertory Theater is
presenting in its Drama Lab Studio through Sunday.
Freeman's play is, admittedly, historical fantasy, but the premise is
quite fascinating. What would these two bandits' lives have been like if
their careers were intertwined?
In the OCC production, imaginatively directed by Sean F. Gray, student
actors Aaron W. Bennett and Miracle Ann Laurie -- both taking their first
leading assignments at OCC -- assume not only the title roles, but those
of various other characters in the lives of Jesse and Belle. This is
accomplished by subtle alterations in costume and the skills of the
The play veers not only in and out of its characters' lives, but back
and forth in history. The off-center painting positioned upstage is a
focal point of the drama, since many playgoers will be aware that Jesse
James was gunned down by one of his lackeys, Robert Ford, while
straightening a picture in his home.
Bennett and Laurie make a provocative pair, segueing instantly from
passion to hostility and slipping in and out of the fringe characters
with a natural ease. Bennett is the stronger of the two, but also the
more erratic, while Laurie is more grounded and self-assured, bolstered
by her alluring femininity.
Bennett's Jesse is obsessed with his eventual place in history,
constantly imagining scenarios of his death in a street gun battle.
Behind his rough-hewn outlaw persona, he projects a man haunted by
visions of his eventual demise. It is a commanding, if uneven, account.
Laurie stresses her character's fierce independence, her taunting
pride in her sexuality that she "never sold it," though she often "gave
it away." Her most successful transition is to Jesse's placid wife, Zee,
accomplished with the simple addition of a hair ribbon. Her subtle facial
gestures register the genuine emotions she keeps mostly under wraps.
Simplicity, however, is not one of the play's virtues, and its two
actors are challenged repeatedly to establish often conflicting emotions.
Bennett and Laurie acquit themselves admirably on this score. "Jesse
and the Bandit Queen" is an ambitious exercise which, more often than
not, succeeds with a flourish.
Closing performances will be given tonight and Sunday in OCC's Drama
Lab Studio Theater.
* TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot. His reviews
appear Thursdays and Saturdays.
WHAT: "Jesse and the Bandit Queen"
WHERE: Orange Coast College Drama Lab Studio, 2501 Fairview Road, Costa Mesa
WHEN: Final performances tonight at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 and 7 p.m.
CALL: (714) 432-5640, Ext. 1