Big Joe’s a fighter and a braggart. He's young, fearless, and on the make. Joe doesn’t think much and he’s ready for anything, which could describe most young men. So when an army recruiter asks him if he’s got the nerve for war while promising a little female company for his troubles, Big Joe signs up and eggs his friends to join in on the fun, too. He’s ready for adventure. And he’ll get that, just not in the way he imagines.
The naïf who goes to war is an old story and has produced some great theater -- Falstaff in the Henry plays, Brecht's A Man's a Man, David Rabe's The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, and Charles Wood's Dingo, to name a few. This familiar premise launches The Unfortunates, a blues, gospel, hip-hop musical by Jon Beavers, Kristoffer Diaz, Casey Hurt, Ian Merrigan, and Ramiz Monsef that aims to be nothing less than a surreal odyssey into the soul of a condemned man. A hit at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the musical's creators have retooled the show under the aegis of San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater, and its greatest and most striking asset has to be Big Joe’s hands.
The massive prop hands worn by actor Ian Merrigan in the role of Big Joe are possibly 10 times the size of a normal man’s hands. And they're uncommonly beautiful, but no one ever mentions the gorgeousness of Big Joe’s hands in The Unfortunates. Not even Big Joe and his girlfriend, Rae (a woman who, for reasons unclear to us, has no arms). But those fists are magical to behold, and you want to reach out and touch them and see how they differ from and work like actual hands. Somewhere between costume and prop, but verging on character, Big Joe’s hands are the story that The Unfortunates doesn’t have the discipline or vision to take on.
You can tell how well-rehearsed the show is. But in its soul, the musical comes across as sloppy, haphazard, and overbearing—a series of ideas about what an epic should be instead of the thing itself. There’s a problem when every number is the "big number" and every scene is climactic. And so when Big Joe rolls the dice for his life, or fights a corrupt doctor, or watches a friend die, it’s all played at the same fevered pitch. It’s as if the entire production is afraid to let the story slow down and just be -- a crucial aspect to any odyssey.
The score’s mélange of blues, gospel, and hip-hop is The Unfortunates' most telling failure. These are genres of daring and danger, and aren’t particularly amenable to pastiche. Great blues, rap and gospel singers perform with the whole of their beings. But the performances here are surface imitations, mere gestures compared to more committed artists and art. And so many of the numbers feel like a put on, like YouTube stunts featuring preschoolers pretending to be gangster rappers. Part of the issue is the performers' lack of skill: enthusiasm and hitting your cues is no substitute for talent and authenticity.
The deeper problem, though, is one of idiom. The show’s creators never find a way to tell a story about a man with big hands and so they barrage us with sensation -- the sensation of the blues’ deep yearning, the sensation of rap’s anger, the sensation of gospel’s spiritual transcendence, and, most crudely, the sensation of significance. What The Unfortunates demands from us isn't understanding, but rather awe. Over and over we're urged to applaud, whether it be elementary tap dancing, showy singing, or one of the many melodramatic death scenes. But these are gimmicks: they have neither meaning nor a way into actual experience. They're simply the noise that keeps us from the beauty of Big Joe's hands.
The Unfortunates runs through April 10th at the Strand Theater in San Francisco. For tickets and information go to www.act-sf.org.