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.
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.