WILMINGTON — Salesianum School Theater has produced a lot of plays over the years, but never has the company had an opportunity like it is getting this month. SST is the first theater company at any level in the world to present an amateur version of “The Unfortunates,” a dark comedy and musical about “the pains of loss, the search for salvation and our ability to love in times of adversity.”
That’s how the play is described by Uproar Theatrics, the firm that owns the licensing rights to the play. Salesianum’s remote connection to “The Unfortunates” played a key role in the school ending up in its current position.
Salesianum’s arts director Aaron Bogad saw the play when it premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival a decade ago. He was in graduate school in Oregon at the time. When he saw it, he was hooked.
“Immediately, it went straight to the center of my brain, straight to the center of my heart,” he said.
The play was staged professionally in San Francisco, and also at a high school in the Bay Area as the writers tried to develop it further. They have spent nearly a decade refining the piece. Bogad knew he wanted to present it at Salesianum.
“We are the first people at all to do this new version that has been in the works for 10 years,” he said the day before its premiere on March 4.
The central character of “The Unfortunates” is Big Joe, who, compelled by the glory of the soldiers he saw returning home, volunteers to go fight in a war that he really doesn’t understand, Bogad said. He and two friends sign up and fly behind enemy lines, where they crash. His friends are summarily executed, and Big Joe is next.
“And in the moment of pleading for his life, he gets pistol-whipped, and that sends him into this hallucination nightmare, see-stars concussion moment that the rest of the show is,” Bogad said.
The bulk of the play takes place in Big joe’s mind as he reflects on his life. The set is his world. There are empty spaces on each side of the stage that are trenches, but they are filled with items that have meaning in his life. All of these items and ideas are fighting for his attention, Bogad said.
The trenches contain toys he played with as a child, the music he listened to, foods he liked, and “everything that made him who he was until the moment he crashed, that he has to reflect on, and figure out how to let go of in order to face his own mortality.”
One of the unique things about the Salesianum presentation of “The Unfortunates” is that the students selected some of the costumes they are wearing. An audience member may never understand why one character is wearing parts from a board game, or why one is an old-time popcorn salesman hanging out with a headbanger. The attendees will feel the energy, however, Bogad said, through the acting and the music, which includes several genres.
Salesianum senior Paul Brecht portrays Big Joe. Bogad said this is the first show he’s ever done. The cast of 24 includes students from Salesianum, Padua and Ursuline. The band has six people in it, and there is a crew of 10. Another eight or nine students are part of the endeavor.
Bogad, who is in his seventh year at Salesianum, has been involved in arts education for about 15 years. He said he has done the classics, “and they’re classics for a reason. But the content that I always choose is way more about, ‘What does the community need to work on? What’s the kind of work that they need to do for them?’”
When selecting a show, he tries to figure out how the arts can be of service, healing and moving people forward. Sometimes, that calls for the traditional favorites, he said.
“The Unfortunates” also fits in with the theme the Salesianum student council selected for the year, “Rise Up.”
“The theme that the student council has devised every year has always worked with the shows,” he said. “How do we as a community rise up? How do we face that scary stuff that we’ve been facing for two years? How do we face a new kind of thing, the looming war in Europe? This worked.”
The show is only 85 minutes long, so to help fill the evening, Bogad lined up a different band to play before each of the six shows. Three were held the weekend of March 4-6, and the other three are March 11-13. The music included blues, punk and jazz. One is a group of students that emanated from the Salesianum jazz band. Another is fronted by a Sallies faculty member.
In order to keep the rights fee lower, Salesianum School Theater agreed to keep attendance limited to 300 per performance, although Bogad said there is some flexibility in that. Tickets are $10, with $5 seats available for students, seniors and veterans. They are available at our.show/unfortunates. The show includes haze and fog effects, along with strobe lights.
Bogad has been in constant communication with the team that created “The Unfortunates,” which includes Jon Beavers, Casey Hurt, Ian Merrigan and Ramiz Monsef. Pulitzer Prize finalist Kristoffer Diaz added material to the play. Bogad did not expect any of them to be in the audience in Wilmington, but the play is being recorded so they can see its evolution and adaptation. The recording will not be distributed publicly.
“The Unfortunates” is the latest SST production, which never stopped despite the pandemic. It is also the first where attendees and performers can choose whether to wear a mask or not. Over the past two years, Salesianum has done its plays virtually, recorded with no audience, outside, and with limited attendance in the school.