The Unfortunates – Sibyl Wickersheimer

The Unfortunates, a new musical rooted in experimentation and collaboration, is inspired by American mythology and distinctly American music linking gospel, blues, rap, and hip hop. This unique theatrical event is reminiscent of an operatic church revival meeting with a 1950’s graphic novel aesthetic.

Born out of the song ‘The Unfortunate Rake’, the earliest known version of a song about the sorrow of a soldier’s fate, The Unfortunates expresses the essential need for art and community to heal deep emotional wounds. The original song was retold through oral traditions, turned into ‘The St. James Infirmary Blues’ and continually remade; into a folk song, blues song, jazz song, etc. Many artists in the last 2 centuries have recorded their own version in their own voice. The designs for The Unfortunates evolved out of the appreciation for the song’s history, reimagining itself through another artistic vision. The designers followed in these footsteps to create an aesthetic where the contemporary and the historic evolve into the sensational.

6 prisoners of war faced with immediate death come together in song. The song transports them out of the gravity of the moment into another world where extremes rule, a place the creators named, ‘The Bluniverse’. The soldiers become the comic book heroes, villains, and victims in this symbolic world of song. For example, we see Big Joe’s transformation clearly through his hands which become giant oversized fists each time soldier Joe transports himself out of the enemy camp. Though the fists seem necessary to live in the Bluniverse, Joe eventually learns his true strengths remain with or without the fists.

For ‘Run Joe Run’, a spoken word turned hip hop tune, the lighting designer and I collaborated to make white lines of light emanate from between the floor boards using LED technology. These appear underneath Joe as he chases after the Doctor to get revenge for the death of his love, Rae, who literally died in the Doctor’s outstretched, 20’ long, puppet arms. Joe is actually running in place, but the lines create the look of an anime movie or Manga comic book, giving the appearance of stylized, fast movement.

In a pivotal moment, the armless “song bird”, Rae, emerges as a ghost in a white wrap. There is no dialogue, but because she no longer has her feathered showgirl costume on, when she appears from behind the scrim surface we suspect that she is dead. The large outline of the eagle overhead glows brighter and brighter, and then fades as if we have seen her soul fly away. We then realize that she has arms, and collectively the audience understands that in her after-life she has been given her arms back.

The ambitious and creative visual devices paired with the intoxicating music made The Unfortunates a transformative experience. By the end of 80 minutes in the theatre, having taken this unique journey together, the audiences and performers created a new community each performance. The power of storytelling pulling them together to heal one another, literally singing, crying, stomping, and clapping.

The Unfortunates

Oregon Shakespeare Festival The Thomas Theatre Ashland, OR – March-November 2013

Created by Jon Beavers, Ramiz Monsef, Ian Merrigan, Casey Hurt, and Kristoffer Diaz

Directed by – Shana Cooper

Set Designer – Sibyl Wickersheimer
Costume Designer – Katie O’Neill
Lighting Designer – Jiyoun Chang
Sound Designer – Corrine Campbell
Photos – Jenny Graham