Oregon Shakespeare Festival premieres 'The Unfortunates'

Take the classic American blues-jazz song "St. James Infirmary Blues," mix in a bit of story from other versions of the song and bookend it with a tale of a group of prisoners of war facing execution, redeemed by singing and storytelling. That's "The Unfortunates," a new play by Jon Beavers, Casey Hurt, Ian Merrigan, Ramiz Monsef and Kristoffer Diaz, to premiere Sunday, March 31, in the Thomas Theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

With a four-piece band onstage, the play uses classic American music genres from folk, gospel, country and blues to rock, jazz and hip-hop, moving seamlessly between styles and telling a story common to all of American culture.

"This play is about the power of song as community," says Shana Cooper, who directs "The Unfortunates."

"The Unfortunates" previews at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, March 29-30, opens at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, March 31, and runs through Nov. 2. Tickets start at $25, $59 or $71 and may be purchased at www.osfashland.org or by calling 541-482-4331.

"St. James Infirmary Blues" can be traced to an 18th-century British soldier's lament, "The Unfortunate Rake," about a young man dying of venereal disease giving his comrades instruction on his burial. The tune and lyrics migrated to America, becoming songs as different as the "Bad Girl's Lament," "The Streets of Laredo" or "The Gambler's Blues." In 1928, Louis Armstrong gave it a New Orleans sound with his recording "St. James Infirmary Blues," now the widely recognized, definitive version of the song.

"The Unfortunates" grew out of author Monsef's fascination with the history of "St. James Infirmary Blues." Monsef shared his ideas with Beavers and Merrigan, his partners in a New York-based a cappella hip-hop group, 3 Blind Mice. When the group met singer-songwriter Hurt, who has a background in blues, Americana and gospel, the four men started writing songs and a story line based on bits and pieces of all the versions of "St. James Infirmary Blues."

Monsef came to OSF in 2010 to appear in Bill Rauch's production of "Hamlet," and Beavers, Merrigan and Hurt joined him. They continued working on "The Unfortunates" as part of Midnight Projects, OSF's program for independent play development by OSF actors. They were joined by Cooper, an Ashland native and award-winning director.

"The Unfortunates'" evolved into a play-within-a-play. A group of World War I-era prisoners of war are awaiting their execution. They sing the "St. James Infirmary Blues."

Out of the soldiers' misery and the solace of shared song, the story becomes bigger than life with a character named Big Joe who is a bartender in King Jesse's bar-brothel-gambling den. He is in love with Jesse's daughter, Rae, who is forced into prostitution. When Jesse dies, Joe takes over the bar, ends the gambling and prostitution and rescues Rae. But he can't save her from a plague and the scams of an unscrupulous doctor.

"We put all this together without knowing the conventional rules of theater," Merrigan says. "We were dreaming as big and weird as possible. Bigger-than-life comic-book figures."

At a certain point during the play's development, Rauch suggested a bit more script structure. Monsef thought of New York playwright Diaz, with whom he had worked in the Actors Theatre of Louisville production of Diaz's multiple award-winning play, "The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity." Diaz immediately understood the concept for "The Unfortunates" and came on board to provide some additional material.

For the production in the Thomas Theatre, Hurt says they were "able to get super playful with the technical abilities of the space."

Set designer Sibyl Wickersheimer provided a set that continually transforms without losing its essence, conveying the grit of the blues and the earthy, muted, almost swampy feel of modern comic Eric Powell's "The Goon," punctuated with brilliant color.

"Our images come from iconic American images," Monsef says, "with everything from World War I posters to mid-20th-century animators like Ralph Bakshi, Bernie Wrightson and Max Fleischer. We are dealing in archetypes here — creepy and scary."

"All of the characters have some sort of disability that keeps them from being complete," Hurt says. "They either become victims or push through their handicaps and learn to evolve."

"Our show asks 'Why do you sing a sad song to comfort someone?' " Merrigan says.

"It's like singing the blues," Hurt adds. "The expression of that sorrow can create an understanding and a magic. Our goal is to share that among ourselves and with the audience."

Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at rbkent@mind.net.

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