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Theater Review

TOM TITUS --

September 23, 2000

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.

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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

participants.

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.

FYI

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.

COST: $6

CALL: (714) 432-5640, Ext. 1

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