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Red Thread’s unusual venue adds “steam punk” touch to THE UNFORTUNATES, a ripping 80-minute tale.

THE BASICS:  THE UNFORTUNATES, a play by Aoise Stratford presented by Red Thread Theatre, directed by Josephine Hogan, is a one-woman, non-stop tour-de-force starring Kelly Meg Brennan as Mary Jane Kelly, the last victim of “Jack the Ripper.” It continues only November 5, 9, 10, 11 and 12 at the Jim Bush Studios, 44 17th Street (enter off Connecticut Street) described as “an urban space that operates as a unique site-specific venue for exciting theatre” (445-4653). The show runs approximately 80 minutes without intermission. Content advisory, over 18 only! Playwright Aoise Stratford will attend the Wednesday November 9 performance (the anniversary of Mary Jane Kelly’s murder) and will take part in a post-show discussion.

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  In this one-woman production, the central character, 25-year-old Mary Jane Kelly, a prostitute and the last victim of Jack the Ripper, is entertaining an unseen, unheard person (perhaps a “client”? perhaps Jack the Ripper?) in a bar called the Ten Bells and throughout the 80 minutes acts out what must be 20 different roles as she describes her life and what brought her to her present low condition. The dress and atmosphere is Victorian London, foggy, gas lit and candlelit, where gin is more readily available than fresh water. The ad for this play reads: “When Mary Jane Kelly seeks refuge in the Ten Bells, she’s behind in her rent, and she’s alone. It’s 1888… not a good time to be poor and ‘unfortunate’ on the streets of London.”

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: Not much is known about Mary Jane Kelly. In fact, along with Mary Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, and Catherine Eddowes, nobody today would remember her except that all of these women were victims of an elusive serial murderer, known as “Jack the Ripper” for his method of disemboweling and otherwise maiming his victims. In the late 1880s, the string of murders sold a lot of newspapers, led to many theories, but to this day, despite the efforts of legions of “Ripperologists” no one knows “Jack’s” true identity. After Mary Jane Kelly, he/she apparently ceased all such activities (although “copycat” killings continued).

But this play is not about Jack the Ripper. In fact, the topic doesn’t interest me personally all that much, but my admiration for Red Thread Theatre which has put on such excellent productions in the past overcame my reluctance. I’m so glad I went. This is not about Jack, it’s about Mary and life in the late 1800s for what the press delicately called “Unfortunates” – prostitutes or sex workers.

She takes on the roles of about 20 different people as she tells her tale, each time seamlessly jumping in and out of character, sometimes in a dialogue, without missing a beat.

It would be hard to overstate Kelly Meg Brennan’s acting abilities. She takes on the roles of about 20 different people as she tells her tale, each time seamlessly jumping in and out of character, sometimes in a dialogue, without missing a beat. She’s sexy, fierce, pitiful, haughty in quick succession.

Interestingly, George Bernard Shaw’s MRS. WARREN’S PROFESSION is playing concurrently over at Shea’s 710 Main Theatre, covering many of the same themes: the limited career choices of women, exploitation, the low wages which kept the women from breaking free from poverty, and the fact that society maintained this system. One big difference is that Shaw, the social commentator, makes his points more deliberately. Here, we are left to conclude what we will from Mary’s stories.

Be sure to call in your reservation early. On Friday night, it was sold out and extra chairs were brought in.


*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For 20 years, as program host on Classical 94.5 WNED and continuing on-stage with the Buffalo Chamber Music Society, he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?"

As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take." And, on “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM and Saturday afternoons at 5:55 p.m. on Classical 94.5 WNED) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?"

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he has been an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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