Singing the blues: THE UNFORTUNATES lacks dramatic development and works best as visual tableau with music
A group of weakened prisoners huddles in a dark cell, singing the St. James Infirmary Blues for solace. In comes an indifferent, well-armed guard, moving fast. He grabs a man, hustles him outside, we hear a gunshot. Evidently we’re not in the land of milk and honey any more (if we ever were) – or even habeas corpus.
A moment, and the guard returns for another victim. The context is not identified, but we sense the prisoners are “us”. They’re Americans, the “good guys”, as if from some bygone age when we could all root guilt free for the home team. And the jailer, the bad guy (who would be a Nazi, except it’s the WWI era), is a godless Hun, large and (of course) leather clad. He takes another guy out. Bang. Then another. Soon our group is down to one.
And then time stops, or rather opens out into the world of that blues song. And the rest of the intermissionless 90 minute piece takes place in that final moment before the last prisoner is led away.
But before then (and you know we’ll end up right back there in the play’s final minutes), Joe, our hero, the last man standing, steps out of the cell and is surrounded by a glittering and gritty madhouse of prostitutes, cabaret performers, street walkers and freaks. There’s the gorgeous woman wearing next to nothing, the sexually unspecified outre monsieur, and a mime who might be Taylor Mac’s body double. Or wait – is that Taylor Mac? It could be Cabaret, the bar scene in Star Wars, or any number of other settings throughout the ages where skirts would typically be whisked promptly across young eyes.
Here our setting is a lowest of the low dive bar, King Jesse’s, where the depravity is depraved and chief product offerings involve gambling, human trafficking, and consumption of non FDA-recommended substances. The aesthetic is equal parts Mardi Gras, Cirque du Soleil, Matthew Barney, Blue Velvet and Rocky Horror. The look and feel of this milieu packs a strong initial punch, and there’s a lot to gawk at.
But without a strong narrative to pull us through the miasma of colored lights and colorful characters, and without any specific social anchor (or relevance?), over time it starts to feel like one synthetic deviant moment after another whipped up for our titillation. Plot and character are meager. It’s occasionally hard to follow (or care a whole lot) what’s happening between the people on stage.
The music is strong, though I had a hard time remembering any specific songs very long after the lights came up. Perhaps the whole event is better framed as a concert with some processions and visual tableaus in between. Ashland, Oregon is never going to become a stop on the global hip hop circuit, and attempts to sex up the joint with loud music can feel forced – bait for the white man overbite syndrome. But younger audience members (and there are more of them at OSF than in almost any other theatre setting you will ever see) clearly enjoyed it.
All in all, there are some fun moments and memorable visuals. But for a project that has been in the works for three years, the outcome seems modest. For young, cutting edge artists, the ahistorical framing of the piece inside that opening jail setting with the heroically doomed (and presumably innocent?) Americans is puzzling. Are we all supposed to forget (for at least 90 minutes) that the current day reality is in fact that the US now finds itself competing against countries like Russia and China for the title of planet’s leading jailer and executioner? Oops.
How would the story here work if the opening scene featured a big beefy American leading one malnourished, innocent Middle Easterner after another away to his death?
Probably not quite as well.