Fresh Ink Theatre Company exists to bring new plays to the stage, from an initial reading through a workshop to a full production. A lot can change along the way.
With MJ Kaufman’s “Outlaw Jean,” which opens Friday and plays through Nov. 16 at the Factory Theatre, the process averted a bloodbath among the characters.
Kaufman started writing the play a few years ago after mentoring high school playwrights at a retreat. The students had been given a challenge to write “an outlaw story” with specific requirements, including a scene in a convenience store and a lit match. Kaufman decided to try it too.
“I just remembered being really impelled by this one requirement, which was ‘a moment of redemption,’ ” Kaufman says. “I was thinking, what did the outlaw need to be redeemed from? And why was that an essential part of an outlaw narrative?”
Kaufman researched outlaw stories from Billy the Kid to the plays of Sam Shepard, “from the Puritans to ‘Kill Bill.’ ”
“It just seemed to me that either the outlaw got married and settled down with a family or was murdered,” he says. “And I thought, wow, that’s a really limiting binary of good and evil.” He wanted to find another way.
“Outlaw Jean” begins with the gun-toting title character looking for a place to stash the bodies piling up in the bed of her pickup truck. But that’s sort of a side issue. There’s a $100,000 reward for her capture, dead or alive, and she’s up for the title of Outlaw King. Before she can claim the crown, though, she’s got to go home to Loose Noose Road and make peace with her mother, Mama Mystery.
“The first draft of the play was really a tragedy. It ended in a big bloodbath. And I think at the time I wrote that, that felt for me like the only way to get out of the redemption narrative for an outlaw,” Kaufman says. “But when I was revising the play in workshop, I was struck by the potential to tell a more inspiring story” while still subverting the traditional “Christian, colonial” paradigm.
Beyond that, the playwright doesn’t want it spoiled for theatergoers. But the ending, in particular, was rewritten.
Fresh Ink literary director Jessie Baxter worked closely with Kaufman throughout the process.
“MJ had workshop experience [with another troupe] before coming in to the Fresh Ink workshop, and I think that started the questions about what that ending should be,” Baxter says. “And through our workshop he was able to hear the musing from the actors and got the sense that maybe the tone of the previous ending wasn’t quite right for what [Outlaw Jean] was trying to accomplish.
“I’m really excited about the change. I think it’s more complicated and I think it’s more interesting,” Baxter says. “It leaves some questions, and I’ll be interested to see how our audience wrestles with those.”
Caroline Markham, who’s new to the play at this stage, plays Outlaw Jean and likes her.
“Jean is this, like, ball of love and compassion, like we all are when we’re born, and she is just pretending to be this big toughie,” Markham says.
‘[The play] leaves some questions, and I’ll be interested to see how our audience wrestles with those.’
“I guess ‘tough’ is a bit understated; she has killed multiple people. But I definitely identify with [her] in my own, smaller way. I’m not suggesting I’m an ax murderer, but I kinda put on a little more tough exterior, when I am really not that at all,” the actress says.
The outlaw returning to the old homestead is a moment familiar to fans of classic Westerns or gangster flicks, but this isn’t your typical genre piece. Mama Mystery (Gillian Mackay-Smith) says it’s time for an unidentified “heavenly body” to crash through her ceiling, bringing her redemption, while her friend Friar Owl (Ron Lacey) has another agenda. Also, there are bedbugs.
The world of “Outlaw Jean” seems “magical and separate from contemporary experience” to director Caitlin Lowans, who came on for the three-day workshop this summer. She’s creating a visual universe drawing from the 1960s and artists like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, with their skewed take on American icons. It feels more like an installation than a typical set, Lowans says, but that doesn’t mean the character arcs aren’t clear.
“Outlaw is this person who feels she’s managed to make herself completely separate from her mother and where she came from,” Lowans says, “but she has to come back and face the fact that almost everything she’s done is in response to her mother. So even though the world is maybe a bit unfamiliar, the meat of what’s happening for each of the characters feels very familiar and very connectable.”
A 2009-2011 Huntington Theatre Company playwriting fellow currently living in Philadelphia, Kaufman says, “A lot of people think this play is in some alternate world. To me it takes place in our world. To me it’s like a heightened expression of aspects of our universe, I guess in the way that any play world is a distorted version of the world around us, so it isn’t exactly our world. But to me this isn’t a sort of alternate magical universe. It’s based on the world we live in.”
The Fresh Ink process, he says, has helped him tackle the challenge of the ending. “To be honest with you, I’m not sure if it succeeds, but I enjoyed the experiment, and I think the creative team has as well. I’m excited to see how the audience responds and maybe do more work after that on figuring out how this story actually ends for Outlaw Jean.”Joel Brown can be reached at email@example.com