"The Unfortunates" is a triumph. There is no other way to describe it. It has all the elements of good theater — star-crossed lovers, bigger-than-life villains, heroes and anti-heroes — combined with exceptional music that rushes headlong through the many styles of American song.
The work by actors, singers and songwriters Jon Beavers, Casey Hurt, Ian Merrigan and Ramiz Monsef, with additional material by playwright Kristoffer Diaz, and directed by Shana Cooper, had its world premiere Easter Sunday at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Thomas Theatre. This was not a purely coincidental date for its opening. "The Unfortunates" is a compelling tale of redemption and the power of love and compassion.
The play opens as a group of prisoners from a vaguely World War I era awaits execution. Arbitrarily, one by one, they are removed from the cell by a mysterious, enemy soldier, and we hear the fatal gunshot from offstage. The men stand together, giving courage to one another by singing the old lament "The St. James Infirmary Blues" — except for one, Joe, who sits in a terrified and catatonic state, staring at his fists. Only when Joe is left with one other prisoner does he begin to sing. The lyrics come alive, and Joe becomes the hero of the story, an imaginary tale created to cope with imminent death, told in surreal images by grotesque characters.
King Jesse's bar, brothel and gambling den is an island of raucous safety for its regulars in a world where hope has died and the pandemic of "the plague" runs unchecked. When King Jesse gets the plague (suspiciously like the Spanish flu of 1918) and dies, his bouncer and dice man, Big Joe of the oversized fists, is the obvious heir. Big Joe is silently in love with Jesse's daughter, the armless songbird Rae, who was forced into prostitution when her father lost a bet with the evil gambler Stack-O-Lee.
Big Joe ends the gambling and prostitution, rescues Rae and keeps the bar open as a haven. But he can't save Rae when she gets the plague and falls into the clutches of an unscrupulous doctor who claims to have a cure.
It is the show's marvelous music that tells this story. Starting with the mournful "The St. James Infirmary Blues" along with the stirring gospel "Old Time Glory" and sounding as though it's straight from a New Orleans funeral, the music lifts the show and gives a roller-coaster ride of American sounds.
There are slinky, sexy blues tunes, rollicking rock 'n' roll and, most surprisingly, complex and sophisticated hip-hop music and lyrics that serve as a narrative, a punctuation or a chorus to the onstage action. "The Unfortunates" seamlessly links all of these distinctly American musical styles, carrying the audience along with them. Both Joe in the prison cell and Big Joe in the sleazy bar find their redemption through a community and the power of shared song.
Merrigan plays the mournful Big Joe, Monsef plays all the outsized villains and Beavers plays the exuberantly immoral King Jesse. Kjerstine Rose Anderson plays the forlorn Rae. The rest of the cast — bar regulars, prisoners, rooks — are played by OSF's gifted repertory actors, with some unexpected twists delivered by director Cooper.
Hurt, also the production's music director, plays guitar and leads the four-piece band onstage, with Jesse Baldwin on keyboards, Mike Fitch on drums and Joseph Porto on bass.
Scenic design for "The Unfortunates" draws on everything from World War I images to modern comic books and animation. Sibyl Wickersheimer's gritty set, filled with muted, earthy colors and spare props, makes ample use of the technical versatility of the Thomas Theatre. Katherine O'Neill's costumes are evocative and eerie — subtly giving the armless Rae the look of a hesitant bird — and giving Big Joe grotesquely oversized fists that painfully clench and unclench, making the villainous "rooks" into human birds of prey.
"The Unfortunates" grew out of writer Monsef's fascination with the long history of "The St. James Infirmary Blues" throughout American song. It goes back to an 18th-century British soldier's lament about a dying young man giving his comrades instruction on his burial. Once the tune and lyrics migrated to America, the song morphed into similar admonitions sung by a prostitute, a gunfighter or a gambler.
Monsef shared his ideas for a theatrical project based on the song with Beavers and Merrigan, his partners in a New York City-based a cappella, hip-hop group, 3 Blind Mice, along with New York City-based blues singer and songwriter Hurt. The four men started writing the songs and a story line.
In 2010, Monsef came to OSF as an actor in Bill Rauch's production of "Hamlet." The other writers followed, director Cooper joined the mix and "The Unfortunates" became a formal OSF development project.
What came out of the effort is a rousing success. "The Unfortunates" is a bright and joyous commentary on the strength of community, charity, compassion and forgiveness. And most of all, on the power of song even in the face of despair.