Friday, October 11, 2013

Oregon Shakespeare Festival: The Unfortunates

The Unfortunates is a powerful new musical developed and premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and I loved it. Damn it, I'm going to have to stop saying I don't like musicals. 

There's a cool story behind this project. Some years ago Bill Rauch picked up the phone to invite Ramiz Monsef to play the Player King in 2010's Hamlet. We remember the buzz about the play-within-a-play being done by a rap troupe, and we enjoyed what they did. Well, apparently Monsef is a pretty good negotiator. He said he and his buddies wanted to work on a little something-something, and would OSF be a home for that. Rauch said yes.

Good move, because that little something has been workshopped for a couple of years now, earned one of the 2013 slots, and blew us and the rest of the audience away.

The Unfortunates is a collaborative effort directed by Shana Cooper and written by Monsef, his fellow 3 Blind Mice Jon Beavers and Ian Merrigan, and Casey Hurt, with additional material by Kristoffer Diaz. Monsef, Beavers, Merrigan, and Hurt formed the core of the outstanding performing ensemble. 

Apparently Monsef had long wanted to do something on the old blues song, "The St. James Infirmary Blues" (which is derived from an even older ballad called "The Unfortunate Rake," thus the title of this musical). Being blues fans, we know and love the song. Monsef and his collaborators took that song and let their imaginations go, riffing on it to create a phantasm, a dream, a hallucination, a life that passes before your eyes. 

Ian Merrigan as Big Joe, and the rest
of the cast of The Unfortunates.
OSF photo.
Here's the story they came up with: a group of men are in a prison camp, where they will be executed. One by one they're taken away. One of these men, Joe, is insensible with fear and grief, kneeling and holding his fists in fighting position in front of his bowed head with a photograph of his sweetie gripped between his fingers. Through chance and the sacrifice of his comrades, Joe's the last to go. But before he does, he slips into the story of the song his friends sang in their last hours: "St. James Infirmary Blues." He becomes Big Joe, the thumper for King Jesse's bar, who in addition to keeping order made sure the dice always turned up sevens. He is useful for and defined by his fists, which are huge. He loves Rae, Jesse's daughter, who was born with no arms, and who sings like an angel, but he can't bring himself to speak for or to her. Jesse allows a hustler to win an hour with his daughter, a bet lost because Big Joe failed to pound the floor with his gigantic fists at the roll of the dice to make sure the house won. After this initiation Rae stops singing and joins the ranks of prostitutes in the bar, to Big Joe's grief and shame. Jesse dies of "the plague" (probably the flu pandemic of 1918), and Big Joe inherits the bar. He cleans things up, which isn't good for business, and at about that time the plague starts picking off the regulars. When it threatens Rae, Big Joe decides to play craps once again to win the money for the doctor. But he returns too late. Rae sold her body to the evil doctor in exchange for the cure, but died anyway, and when Big Joe finds and confronts him, the doctor admits that it was all a scam and there is no cure. Rae reappears to Joe. She has arms, he finds his voice, and he is able to slip out of his ginormous fists and hold her with human-size arms and open hands. The world of the bar slips away and Joe is back in the prison camp, able to stand and face the guard who comes for him with courage, thanks to the song of his brothers in arms.

Yeah, I know. Sounds like a hot mess, or maybe just goofy. Definitely implausible. Certainly not uplifting. I'm glad I knew absolutely nothing about the musical before showing up. I might have skipped it in order to see The Tenth Muse a third time, and that would have been a real shame. Because this was one of the most joyful things I've ever seen.

The story works because it doesn't begin to try to be realistic, and instead uses all the arts and magic of theater to tap in to deeply held human fears and hopes, pulling from and across cultures for symbols, tropes, archetypes, all in service of the theme of our indomitable human capacity to create and feel joy. Awesome. Besides, psychological realism is overrated. 

And it works because music is the story; it is the inspiration, the theme, the conclusion. It is what this play is about. Without the music, the story would have made a pretty good comic book, and it would have been cool, but it wouldn't have been a play. I woke up the morning after seeing The Unfortunates with the music in my head, my ears, and on my lips. Part of the joy of this music is the artists' dexterity across genres. They used a through line of American ways of telling stories with music—the blues, ballads, rock, gospel, rap, and again and always the blues. I suppose the music has had the roughest edges smoothed out to be the hummable, crowd-pleasing, foot-stomping, hand-clapping stuff of musicals. That's cool. I was entertained by the little old ladies making a bee line for the CD sales table after the show (I hope they purchased; this little old lady did!). But if I had magical powers I would create a time machine and spirit myself back to the midnight workshops at the Black Swan when they were riffing and jamming and figuring this all out.

Finally, I have to hand it to the costume shop and costume designer Katherine O'Neill. Our faithful readers (both of you!) know that I tend to tweak the costume design at OSF. Here, the costumes were essential to the  story, and they designed and executed them beautifully. Here was their tall order: the story needed a costume for a lovely woman with no arms; great big giant fists—each bigger than the guy's head—that look reasonably realistic and that open and close and will stay on but can be slipped out of at just the right time; and arms that can be pulled out from the shoulder almost to the length of the stage. Plus clowns, prostitutes, preachers, barflies—oh, and rooks (yeah, like the bird). It all worked really well and made sense, in a wonderful outsized comic-book-superhero kind of way. The set designed by Sibyl Wickersheimer was slick too, accommodating the live musicians (yay for live music on stage!), drawing us into the scene, and moving us quickly between bar and prison camp locations.

I take back every grumpy thing I ever said about the recent proliferation of musicals at OSF. Good call, Bill Rauch; good call.


Anonymous said...

Enough time has passed for Luis and Keely to make an appearance....Vanessa and Jake need to come out from under whatever rock they are hiding...

Now L&K, THAT is a musical...

SWEETIE, a Bunch...WHEIMER still 0

Sweetie the Official Scorer said...

I know, I was thinking about L&K a lot after seeing Unfortunates; that's the other musical I liked!