The Unfortunates

Gail Rastorfer as Mary Jane Kelly. Photos by Emily Schwartz.

By Aoise Stratford

Directed by Kurt Johns

Starring Gail Rastorfer

Produced by SoloChicago

Playing at Theater Wit, Chicago

Nothing Unfortunate About This Performance

SoloChicago launched with Ron Keaton’s show Churchill, and the second production by the company, which is devoted to one-person plays, is very much a complementary work. The aesthetics of the production of Aoise Stratford’s The Unfortunates, helmed by company artistic director Kurt Johns, are very similar to those of Churchill, also featuring projections by Paul Deziel and music by Eric Backus. But while Churchill depicted a historical titan in the comfort of his own home and was largely derived from his own writings, the character in The Unfortunates is from the opposite side of the social hierarchy, and in a sinister, shadowy environment. Mary Jane Kelly is considered by scholars to be the last definite victim of Jack the Ripper, and what few details of her life are known are sketchy and contradictory. In a truly marvelous performance which spans hilarious satire and social commentary to the deepest pain and sorrow, Gail Rastorfer imagines who Kelly might have been, and restores a living face to someone who is remembered only for being a victim.

The setting is the Ten Bells, a public house in the East End, and when Mary Jane enters, she is startled to see someone else already in the room. Not that the Ten Bells is normally this deserted, she assures us, but because everyone’s been so paranoid over the recent murders, she had resigned herself to drinking alone tonight. Even the bartender isn’t here, though Mary Jane makes a great show of leaving money for her drink on the counter anyway; she’s an honest whore, and absolutely hates to see anyone get mistreated. Speaking of the murders, she has something we might be interested in buying. Having been a close friend of the Ripper’s last victim, Catherine Eddowes, Mary Jane has an object which could be of great interest to anyone interested in the case (and who isn’t?), and she needs the money. Her boyfriend, Joe Barnett, left her recently, following a fight due to her losing the key to their apartment while drunk, and him punching out the window above the door handle to let himself in. Now, she’s late on the rent, and her landlord won’t replace the window until she comes up with some money, leaving her effectively without a way to lock her door and its defenselessness plainly visible to all who walk by.

It is extremely uncomfortable how readily Mary Jane reveals this, given that it is implied that the audience may be standing in for the Ripper She’s not stupid, but she is lonely and a little arrogant. Her desire to prove herself to have been in the social circle of the murdered women quickly turns into blowing off steam, as she amuses us and herself with mocking impressions of all the jerkasses and morons who figure in to her life story. There are quite a few. Her most frequently recurring target is Joe, whom she professes to actually care about, but is feckless and annoying, as she makes clear by re-enacting his predictable response to her request that he go on a date with her to a freakshow. And while Catherine Eddowes was Mary Jane’s best friend, the victim immediately before her, Lizzy Stride, was somebody Mary Jane strongly disliked, and makes plain why. Rastorfer as Kelly does about twenty impressions, all very convincing, mostly quite funny, and which make Kelly a surprisingly endearing figure.

For about an hour, the audience laughs along with Mary Jane Kelly at her recounting of the ignoble thought and behavioral patterns exhibited by denizens of London at all levels of society, including her own. But as she works herself up to talking about her friend’s murder, Mary Jane’s grief becomes much more affecting, and her quotation of the coroner’s report is sickening. (Earlier this year, the Goodman’s 2666 had an entire act devoted to these kinds of reports, but they were delivered by indifferent medical professionals instead of people who knew the victims personally). Mary Jane says it’s important to her to remember the real woman accurately, and the point of Stratford’s play is to try to come as close to that as can be done over a hundred years later for Kelly herself. Victims of serial and mass killers are often thought to be people who were simply unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and therefore, to prevent future atrocities, a greater study should be made of the killer. Stratford seems interested in challenging that idea, in as much as that Jack the Ripper’s victims were recognized even in their own time as people who had been written off and undervalued, and therefore, their targeting was not totally random and Victorian London had some soul-searching to do. Getting into the habit of listening to people like Mary Jane Kelly may be one of the most potent ways to prevent repeats of what happened to her. At the very least, with Rastorfer’s performance, it’s a fine way to pass the time in its own right.

Highly Recommended

Jacob Davis

[email protected]

Reviewed June 20, 2016

This show has been Jeff recommended.

For more information, see The Unfortunates’ age on Theatre in Chicago.

Playing at Theater Wit, 1229 W Belmont, Chicago.