Jesse and The Bandit Queen | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Jesse and The Bandit Queen 

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JESSE AND THE BANDIT QUEEN, Azusa Productions. Outlaws Jesse James and Belle Starr (originally Myra Belle Shirley), born one year apart in the mid-19th century, were both Wild West legends before they were 30. But playwright David Freeman is less concerned with their infamous adventures than he is with demystifying their legends. His James is less the train-robbing folk hero immortalized by Woody Guthrie than a henpecked dullard and brutal Confederate guerrilla whose Robin Hood image was self-created. Freeman's Starr has a little more swagger--particularly as played by Lila Michael in Azusa's revival--but the grim specter of an incestuous relationship with her son contrasts starkly with the image of a brash, independent cattle rustler she projected. Though it's been said Starr ran with the James gang, the love affair between the two legends is largely fictional.

Portraying Starr and James as well as a variety of other characters, Matthew Fahey and Michael are forced to keep a certain distance from their roles since they're playing both actual human beings and the myths they created. This problem--compounded by the fact that the exalted image of the Wild West outlaw is nowhere near as prevalent as when Freeman wrote the play (last seen in Chicago more than 20 years ago)--contributes to an ultimately unengaging production of a rather flat and irrelevant theatrical exercise. --Adam Langer

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