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‘Unfortunates’ a satisfying, surreal musical folk tale

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“The Unfortunates” at American Conservatory Theater features (back row) from left, Eddie Lopez, Arthur Wise, Danielle Herbert, Lauren Hart, Amy Lizardo and Taylor Iman Jones, and (front) from left, Christopher Livingston and Jon Beavers. (Courtesy Kevin Berne)

The music moves in mysterious ways in “The Unfortunates.” So do the performances, in this richly imagined, slightly surreal musical folk tale.

Created by Jon Beavers, Kristoffer Diaz, Casey Lee Hurt, Ian Merrigan, and Ramiz Monsef, this high-octane mashup of music and modern-day myth premiered in 2013 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It made its Bay Area debut last week in a new American Conservatory Theater production at the Strand.

In this brief but potent parable of a captured soldier searching for love in a world of endless war, the show builds on a riff from the classic blues song, “St. James Infirmary.”

But it’s more than a musical. In 90 minutes, performed without intermission, this sly Brechtian romp depicts a nightmarish landscape where warriors are slain and brought back to life, the dying roll the dice to find a cure for plague, and an unlikely hero charts a path from loss to redemption. Oh, and there’s lots of dancing, and a really great band.

One look at Big Joe (the lanky, brooding Merrigan), whose fists are the size of a giant’s, and you know you’ve entered an entirely new realm.There’s a dreamlike feel, and a dark visual sense drawn from graphic novels, in Shana Cooper’s teeming, tightly packed production.

Big Joe’s journey begins when he and two friends, enticed by a general’s promise of fame and glory, enlist as soldiers in an ongoing conflict (Sibyl Wickersheimer’s set suggests the World War I era, but anything’s possible.)

When his friends are shot and killed by a mysterious figure in a trench coat, Joe blacks out and awakens in a kind of alternate reality. His dead pals are now ghostly Rooks, who scour the area collecting corpses. The chanteuse he loves has no arms, and plague is stalking the land. An evil crapshooter, an unctuous preacher, and a mad scientist all come into play.

Merrigan, projecting rage and pathos in equal measure, is surrounded by an energetic cast of singer-dancers. With the onstage band — Hurt on piano and guitar, with Karl Theobald (woodwinds), Kevin Porter (brass), Wil Hendricks (bass), and David Rokeach (drums) — churning out the songs, the cast makes the show’s transitions between blues and gospel, rock and hip-hop, dance hall and Vaudeville schtick with tremendous verve.

Still, “The Unfortunates” sends out more than tuneful episodes. Beyond the garish facade, the show offers glimpses into a world closer to home. “Where’s that old-time glory that they promised us now?” asks Big Joe. It’s a good question, for his time and ours.

REVIEW
The Unfortunates
Presented by American Conservatory Theater
Where: Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. most Tuesdays, Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays: closes April 10
Tickets: $35 to $95
Contact: (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org