The Unfortunates Review

“The Unfortunates”

The Unfortunates is a world premiere, created by Jon Beavers, Ramiz Monsef, Ian Merrigan, and Casey Hurt; additional material by Kristoffer Diaz.  Directed by Shana Cooper.

A review by Angela Allen

The Unfortunates: Edgy or over the Edge?
Full disclosure: I love edgy theater. Not that OSF doesn’t do Neil Simon or August Wilson up right, or even Shakespeare in period dress, but I prefer the small-theater, risk-prone productions.
So The Unfortunates, playing at the newly named Thomas Theatre, wasn’t a huge stretch for me, but it could be for many. (As one playgoer, who prides himself on enthusiasm for works by Chekhov, Strindberg, et al, said, “the whole thing was entirely unfortunate – the music, the acting, the play.”)

To be sure, the play is anything but linear, pretty darn plot-less (minus a love story between Big Joe and armless prostitute Rae), and fluid about time. So, if you prefer a story spooling out logically to an avalanche of metaphors about suffering, this play  will impress you as barely cohesive, experimental as hell, and moodier than most.

And here’s the deal that contributes to that feeling: The Unfortunates is a collaborative effort among a number of actors-turned-playwrights-turned-musicians, all of whom play large parts in the play, and all of whom are fabulous actors and musicians (if not playwrights).

The play/musical is mercifully 90 minutes short, without intermission. It begins in a prison camp, travels to a New Orleans-style bar and flirts with the underworld.

The piece brushes with war, the plague, hell in all versions, and misfortune of all stripes – including armlessness and addictions. Its characters are bigger-than-life comic-book versions, from the bar “madame” to onetime bar-owner King Jesse, to dazed and bedazzled Big Joe with his over-sized craps-throwing hands, to pitiful songbird Rae whose wings are clipped. Everyone endures a miserable life, but without the trajectory or development of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.

Still, if I wasn’t wild about the show, I liked the music. You’ll hear strains of the blues, rap, rock and spirituals, including good old Amazing Grace and St. James Infirmary, with which the play begins and ends.  (Keep in mind the song’s first line is, “It was down in Old Joe’s barroom” and the play might make some sense.)
I doubt The Unfortunates will go to Broadway or to off-Broadway, but I admire OSF for taking risks and producing such a wild and woolly ensemble piece.

— Angela Allen is a Portland-based journalist, photographer and poet, who drinks in as many plays as she can when visiting Ashland and staying at the Chanticleer.

Comments (16)

  1. Ellen -
    April 11, 2013

    For me, during the production I realized a few things:
    1. I really admired the talent of the individual performers
    2. I did not care about any of the characters in the story. Nothing about them evoked empathy from me.
    3. If it weren’t for the music, I would not have liked the play at all.
    4. The story telling (such as it was) was shallow. While it was supposed to be about deep, tragic and profound events it did not move the heart. I like edgy, perhaps not as edgy as you, but this edge wobbled and wiggled on the surface.
    5. During the last part, it occurred to me that it’s a good thing the play is only 90 minutes; and it’s bad that the play has no intermission. 90 minutes is about the limit for a performance piece over which I am vacillating between tolerating and barely liking. Bad part is without an intermission, OSF is not going to get the immediate feedback of people voting with their feet.

    I can guarantee that there will be many people who will want to walk out. And many will question why they paid so much money for it.

  2. elle -
    May 1, 2013

    There’s nothing here. This is what happens when you try to stage a play without a writer and without a story. Even with the “additional material”, there’s nothing there. Not a thing.

  3. Jackie Pierce -
    May 24, 2013

    This play was entertaining and the actors were very good, but neither my husband nor I had any idea about what this play was about. I suspect that neither did the writers. I also like really edgy plays, but this play was not edgy it was a disaster. Maybe the young men that wrote this play should stick to acting and music.

  4. Drew T -
    May 30, 2013

    I disliked the production about more than anything I’ve ever seen at OSF, but part of that may have been because the staging resulted in obstructing my view of the action for something like 20 minutes of the play. For long periods one of the actors would stand about five feet from my seat, directly between it and the action, which mostly took place at the very back of the stage. This gives new meaning to the term “blocking.” I was really astonished that anything so inept could take place at OSF. I think I would have disliked the production anyway, but I really wasn’t given much of a chance to like it, since I couldn’t see it.

  5. Drew T -
    May 30, 2013

    I should add, Shana Cooper has directed two of my very favorite OSF productions of recent years — Equivocation and Love’s Labor’s Lost. But she, or somebody, doesn’t appreciate the peculiar difficulties presented by the configuration of the Thomas theater and particularly its effect on audience sightlines.

  6. Alan -
    May 31, 2013

    A lot of resources thrown at not much. What’s the story? This show is for the performers – not the audience. Sheer indulgence. They have nothing to say other than “look we have a show!”. It’s rare that a good play emerges from a collective writing team. Here the original “creators” came up with so little that they had to bring in a playwright for “additional material” (read: try to save this thing). When there is a good story, it is present in every second of the play. The opposite is also true. An embarrassment to OSF, and a serious waste of the audience’s time and money.

  7. Sharon K -
    June 4, 2013

    It did not come together for me at all. The emotions were all on the same level and I just didn’t think that it worked. For the price of the ticket I can’t recommend it. Experimental for sure but not at that price. I did appreciate the efforts of the actors and musicians. Truly the worst play i’ve seen at OSF.

  8. Elizabeth -
    June 9, 2013

    The play was very slow in getting going, but once it got going, it continued to build up to steam for a great finish. Some other commenters said they didn’t feel for any of the people. I felt as if I were watching something by Brecht, and I can’t say I’ve ever felt anything for any of his characters, and that’s all right. I had a good time watching – I loved the music and the dancing, and for me that’s what made the play.

  9. Rob -
    July 18, 2013

    Its never a good sign to be glancing at your watch 30 minutes after a performance begins, Many people in the audience, myself included were making it obvious they were not engaged at any level. The unfortunates occurred to me as the type of piece that one wants to like more than they actually do. It tries too hard to be vague and mysterious, in a situation where the characters and setting could easily tells compelling east to follow story. Instead it’s an over metaphor end mess, with the writers choosing to be “edgy” just to be edgy. I find it annoying to mislead audience expectations – when you go see a musical full of colorful characters, you walk in with a set of basic expectations –

    The unfortunates is an experimental piece that just doesn’t work as theatrical entertainment. It may be critically fussed about by the theatrical elite, but as something that has any enduring value, there is nothing here. No way this show runs anywhere else –

  10. Sally -
    July 19, 2013

    It is interesting to read all the comments above. We saw The Unfortunates today and it seems to have been a completely different performance than when it first opened. The audience was wildly enthusiastic and as it finished, I emailed friends to say it was worth the drive from Portland just to see this play.

    Also interesting to note, in the ‘post play’ discussion, which was absolutely filled with theater goers, the actor who led the discussion (Cristofer Jean) was pretty passionate about how this was the best performance to date. He also commented that we were the best audience he could remember which he pointed out leads to good things for everyone.

    You all are right… the music is exceptional and we were all clapping and joining in, complete theater standing ovation as it ended, but the sheer wonder at the choreography and creativity caused all 4 of us to say we wanted to see it again.

    Anyone who saw it before mid July…. feel free to give it another chance. We think it will make it to Broadway.

  11. GELIOTT -
    August 14, 2013

    What was so difficult about premise of using music to find courage or
    strength ? I loved the play, it was moving and incredible. I will see it again in October.

  12. SteveE -
    September 8, 2013

    Four of us bought rush tickets to The Unfortunates last night and had a stunningly wonderful time. The play weaves multiple plot themes and non-linear story with a phenomenal range of music genres, all supported by an incredibly talented cast. What has been surprising to us is the degree to which most of the comments above seem to miss the mark on the play. I guess if you are not provided linear storytelling explained in real time by Basil Exposition then you don’t like the play because you didn’t have the story adequately spoonfed.
    Highly recommended 8 thumbs up. Oh, and having seen lots of Off Broadway, this is easily qualified. Kudos to cast, crew, authors, and OSF. P.S. all four of us also loved Cymbaline.

  13. rickc -
    October 5, 2013

    Thoroughly enjoyed the show. My favorite of those I saw this year which also included Midsummer, Cymbeline, My Fair Lady. I wish I were close enough to go and see a repeat performance.

  14. janec -
    November 3, 2013

    Absolutely loved this play. Way to go to everyone involved. I was moved.

  15. hbw -
    November 3, 2013

    Wow. Maybe it evolved. We saw the last performance and thought it was out-of-this-world wonderful. And I’m not sure the creators even attempted to be “edgy” (“controversial”?). If they aimed at exhilerating, they succeeded, apparently with many.

  16. Juliana -
    November 4, 2013

    This musical is truly a work of art. I attended the Prologue and it helped immensely because it explained the symbolism and defining features of each character. I will be honest, I was not so sure about how it was going to play out, but I must say, this was definitely worth the trip to Ashland. I was so moved by it and now, a few days later, I still feel deeply moved by it. It is the type of play that just resounds with you for a long time after. Of course, I wish I saw a more redeeming factor within the play, because it sits in such a dark place for most of the plot. I wish that Rae, when dressed in white, would have stuck with Joe and hugged him as he stood up (finding his strength in her as he stands against his oppressor in reality). I know that is what the storyline points to (he finding his strength in Rae) but then after their final embrace, even her spirit collapses and returns to the ground. I just would have loved if she had wrapped her arms around him as he pounds his fist in defiance of the man in black. However, I have talked with many people who have also seen this play and absolutely loved it and the only thing I could say is it is very well perceived by open minds. All in all, great job 3Blind Mice. I can’t stop listening to the CD! Well done.


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