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"The Unfortunates" Review- A one-woman show with great dramatic and social appeal

By Debra Davy

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SoloChicago Theatre Company just completed it’s run of the play “The Unfortunates”  by Aoise Stratford, at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont.  Astutely directed by Kurt Johns, the production starred Gail Rastorfer as Mary Jane Kelly, the last victim of the British serial killer known as “Jack the Ripper”. This was a one-woman show that nonetheless brought many characters to light as the talented Rastorfer addressed an unknown presence on the stage, cunningly crafted by stage manager/scenic coordinator Jenniffer Thusing to resemble a down-at-heels pub, Bells Public House, in Whitechapel, the scene of the murders. The misted-over faux picture window at stage left, courtesy of projections designer Paul Deziel, which haunts the audience with murky figures passing in the snowy dark, added to the chiaroscuro effects of lighting designer Heather Skye Sparling cast an eerie sense of anticipatory horror. The drab and patched costume, thanks to costume designer Alice Broughton, curiously demure, augments the authentic bare-bones furnishings to create a scene of poverty, if not destitution.

Gail Rastorfer as Mary Jane Kelly in SoloChicago Theatre Company's "The Unfortunates" at Theater Wit

The brilliant Cockney accent and forced bravado of Kelly, tempered by desperation and the obvious need to reveal her story, render this a fully-realized character, which is amazing, given she’s only on the stage before us for some hour and a half. That’s the beauty of any great “channeling” production- but most solo-character shows are about someone who is famous for their own accomplishments. Here, the character of Kelly is used to tell the story of a time, a place, and a much larger truth than that of one twisted man. I’s really the story of how and why a kind, bright loving woman- doubtless emblematic of many more like her throughout history-is thrust into the world’s oldest and most dangerous feminine occupation. And while it’s filled with pathos, it’s also filled with wry social commentary and dry humor- such as the proffering of a gruesome “relic”. It’s never explained how Kelly obtained this souvenir, but because she knew several of those slain, we can perhaps guess.

Gail Rastorfer as Mary Jane Kelly

Legends and conjecture about “The Ripper" abound, but the facts are now pretty clear. The “Whitechapel Murderer”, as he was more generally known in 1888, is now believed to have killed “only” the 5 prostitutes known as “the Canonical Five”.The murders which  took place between August 31, 1988 and November 9th, 1988 involved female prostitutes who lived and worked in the slums of London’s East End, and were particularly gruesome; the women’s  throats were cut prior to abdominal mutilation.The crimes, which, at the time were thought to be much more extensive, doubtlessly due to both other “primary” killers and attackers as well as to “copycats”, threw the populace into a nightmare of fear. It is from within the welter of that fever-dream of horror that we hear the story of Mary Jane Kelly’s terrible life- yet, withal, a life not bereft of friendship, loyalty and love.

Gail Rastorfer as Mary Jane Kelly trying to be lighthearted

In the mid-19th century, Britain experienced an influx of Irish and other immigrants (Kelly was Welsh) and these swelled the populations of the major cities. The parish of Whitechapel became increasingly overcrowded, and, as is always the case, a significant underclass developed. Robbery, violence and alcohol abuse became endemic, and poverty drove women to prostitution.

Gail Rastorfer as Mary Jane Kelly filled with fear

The “Unfortunates” is a term often used by those in more comfortable social situations to refer to those to whom it is fashionable to give charity- one would have to come up with a  much more explicit term to cover the victims of social degradation and perverse criminality that this excellent production honored. Gail Rastorfer gave the audience a valiant and terrified- and very human Mary Jane Kelly. Her physicality alone was masterful-she commanded the stage- and that marvellously sculpted face was endlessly mobile and expressive.

Gail Rastorfer as Mary Jane Kelly displays a "relic" of "The Ripper" for sale

SoloChicago’s stated mission is “to develop, encourage and celebrate solo theatrical performance” in a spirit of inclusion. For more information on the company go to Solochicagotheatre website


Both of SoloChicago’s excellent productions, “Churchill” and “The Unfortunates” are available for tours, private bookings and limited-runs


Photos courtesy of Emily Schwartz




Published on Jul 19, 2016

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