'The Unfortunates' At A.C.T.'s Strand Theater Is A Brash, Messy, Genre-Bending Musical For A New Age
by Jay Barmann
Originally published on SFist, February 25, 2016
In what's arguably the first piece of gutsy, experimental theater to hit the stage at A.C.T.'s Strand Theater — the ostensible mission of which is to provide space for more experimental stuff that A.C.T.'s much larger Geary Theater can accommodate — The Unfortunates opened on Friday, and no one can claim it doesn't push some boundaries. It's got some delightful musical moments and arresting visuals, but unfortunately for The Unfortunates, it has more than its share of missing pieces too — but such is the risk with experimentation, and for theater lovers it's still worth a ticket.
Having read nothing about the piece besides the fact that it was an import from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where it premiered in 2013, I went into the play not even knowing that it was a full-fledged musical. It most certainly is, in that it is more music than dialogue, some of which is very catchy, moving, and well realized. But this is a musical that, while artfully blending elements of blues, R&B, folk, gospel, and hip-hop, is lacking in a book writer. It's a dream play with no clear narrative line, or sense of time or place, but instead weaves together symbols, songs, and a kind of dark comic-book mythology for its central character, Big Joe (played by co-creator Ian Merrigan) into a mashup that comes off as David Lynch and Matthew Barney meet Sweeney Todd and The Scottsboro Boys.
Looking into the dramaturg's notes in the program after the show, a lot of this started to make more sense. The five co-creators worked from the inside out, first creating songs and choosing as their starting point the popular early 20th Century blues song, "St. James Infirmary." Three of the creators were part of an acapella group called 3blindmice, and their common musical love was hip hop and beatboxing. They took their talents and various backgrounds (songwriter Casey Lee Hurt also brought with him a gospel background from being a third-generation former Southern Baptist preacher), a loose idea about three friends who volunteer for a war (it's either World War I or II, or a bit of both), and began building the myth of Big Joe through song.
By far the strongest element of the show is the music, from its rollicking and blues-y opening ensemble numbers, to the moving folk ballad "Down and Out," which you can hear below, recorded in 2012 by Merrigan and Hurt.
For those who go to theater without any heavy expectation of narrative, there is a lot to love here — fans of Cirque du Soleil or clowning in general will no doubt love this piece. Co-star and co-creator Jon Beavers is especially funny and dynamic in the role of Coughlin, Big Joe's war buddy who is killed in battle and spends the majority of the show as a clownish specter who haunts him; and Taylor Iman Jones is marvelous as the female lead Rae, an armless "songbird" who steals Joe's heart and whom he follows into a dark — and very musical — netherworld. Also memorable is Eddie Lopez who plays a clown figure named Koko, as well as his own undead foil, with great physical skill.
The scenic design, too, by Sibyl Wickersheimer, and costumes by Katherine O'Neill make up the impressive visual glue of The Unfortunates along with some highly original choreography by Erika Chong Shuch.
But ultimately I craved some narrative grounding, a compelling story, and clear sense of the characters to unify what otherwise is an impressively and aggressively original piece of theater. Was this all a dream? A commentary on war? A commentary on death and disease? (There's a repeated plot point about a "plague," the dots of which are never connected.) I really couldn't say, though a lot of the audience seemed not to care as they tapped their feet.
In an era when Hamilton is wowing audiences in New York and set to begin a national tour this summer, with its unique blend of pop, hip-hop, and musical theater sensibilities, it's clear that the theater needs more experiments like this. The intricacy and beauty of the genre blending, indeed, is one of the strongest cases for seeing The Unfortunates. It just falls short of greatness by being more of a dance/performance piece set to a jukebox of original songs, than a play.