Created by Jon Beavers, Kristopher Diaz, Casey Lee Hurt, Ian Merrigan and Ramiz Monsef
Directed by Shana Cooper
Runs at ACT’s Strand Theatre February 3 – April 10, 2016
The Unfortunates, a dark musical comedy presented as a surreal phantasm, is a six-year labor of love originally produced at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2013. It’s now making its debut at ACT’s sparkling new Strand Theatre in its final form. Uniquely combining musical elements of American blues, gospel and rap rhythms, the story uses the classic blues song “St. James Infirmary” as a jumping off point for a story of grief, loss, and the meaning of honor. With its wildly inventive costuming, staging and musical dialogue, the results are nothing short of spectacular.
The story revolves around Big Joe, a macho lug teaming with bravado, who after witnessing the death of his best friends during war travels to a dream world populated with the surreal inhabitants of a seamy nightclub in a search for meaning. Crushed by grief, Joe finds it difficult to mourn his fallen comrades
as the ensemble sings of “Old Time Glory”. Facing his own imminent death, Joe is surrounded by mythical archetypes (a priest, a Madame, a bizarre clown and a wingless songbird) in this fever dreamscape of music and dance. Joe falls in love with the wingless songbird Rae who urges him to remember his friends in “I Want You”.
Koko the clown, brilliantly performed by Eddie Lopez, and Rae (local actor Taylor Iman Jones) are the philosophical visionaries that propel the transformation of Joe. When a mysterious plague rears its ugly head, the troupe of phantoms search for a cure and a hero to save them. “Catch Me When I Fall” and the “Plague Song” are metaphors for fear itself. When it turns out there is no cure, and Big Joe is bested by a bigger, stronger foe, his ideas of honor, sacrifice and true love are played out.
With its fantastic costuming (Katherine O’Neill), choreography (Erika Chong Church) and scenic design (Sibyl Wickersheimer), The Unfortunates teams with wild movement, energy and passion. The universal plot elements of war, the high cost of healthcare, false prophets, morality and grief are beautifully presented through the wonderful music and lyrics of Casey Lee Hurt, who directs the 5-piece band. The eclectic score effectively combines both past and the contemporary sounds and the cast, which includes original production members as well as local performers, are more than up to the task.
Top notch performances are delivered by Ian Merrigan as the troubled Big Joe, Christopher Livingston CJ) and Jon Beavers(Coughlin) as his pals and ghoulish rooks, Ramiz Monsef (General Goodtimes/enemy/Stack/Doctor), the aforementioned Eddie Lopez (Koko) and Taylor Iman Lopez (Rae). Shana Cooper’s direction is wildly imaginative and deeply moving. The Unfortunates is boldly innovative, fully engaging and emotionally captivating. With its compelling sights, performances and sounds, you can’t help but be grabbed by the bootstraps and drawn into this richly imagined phantasmagorical world.