Prop Thtr treads all too familiar territory in '2 Unfortunate 2 Travel'
Updated: Oct 4, 2019
On title alone, there is good reason to be skeptical when attending 2 Unfortunate 2 Travel at Prop Thtr. The lobby immediately piques interest with a delightful, makeshift, cardboard island complete with a functioning photo booth, a no paper program policy (pssst...the online version can be found here) and conveniently located across from the bar. But, you may want to save that drink for later as turbulence lies ahead.
Before preparing for takeoff in this intermissionless, eighty minute, devised adventure, there's an unexpected delay of amusement. On the night I attended, comedienne (Zoey K.) delivered a succinct set lamenting about lesbianism ("orgasm after orgasm"), her unfortunate crush on Edward Cullen (haven't we all?), and shitty men continuing to evolve into more forms of shittiness. She opened up a quiet, unsure room to the fullest and it feels like we're in good hands. But, alas not for long.
Directed and adapted by Zach Weinberg while devised by the ensemble, this fantasia flight has the fear and ambiance of feeling eternally trapped in a game show. Our pilot so to speak comes in the form of Jack Whilton (Joseph Ramski). Ramski charges Whitlon with an energy of a seemingly put together host, but who is teetering on collapse inside. You can feel his need to be liked and insistence on proving he's a good person with his gentle, reassuring tones emphasizing this is a "safe space" and taking pride in the "diverse perspectives" to be shared. With an innate ability to sniff out performative allies with buried layers of deeply rooted misogyny and racism, I could smell Jack's lack of authenticity from a mile away (or in this case a couple rows back).
Jack is a walking oxymoron from the get go. This is why it's no surprise when he announces with the right amount of feigned humbleness that he's just returned from a European vacation ("What everyone wishes they could do") after what will be referred to in the future as the Kardashians of elections. Y'all know which one. And while we couldn't afford such a luxury as he notes, Jack has chosen an all-female ensemble to bring to life his memories to share with us. With chances to win free beer in this supposed safe space where politics talk aren't allowed, Wilton offers us the American dream on a silver platter.
And of course, we indulge. Audience members are welcomed to join the action answering questions about cultural customs, competing in nostalgic games like Chubby Bunny and flip cup, and sipping on La Croix and beer because why not? All things are set up to make us comfortable, to not disrupt or offend. But like the gooey remnants of marshmallow that stick to the roof of your mouth and continuous sips of gentrified seltzer water, you're left salivating for more.
Continuing to capture the spirit of fun and games, the ensemble eagerly sets sail reenacting Jack's adventures. Most performances begin with reading passages from Jack's journal, before a deliberate pivot from his words, perspective, and the structure of the show entirely occurs. It's like the ensemble keeps continually confessing to us a secret: Don't tell Jack, but we're gonna talk about our experiences and put on a better show than the one that was promised. To that I say, anchors aweigh.
Delivering on this unspoken promise, what ensues is a variety of incredibly moving performances. Each ensemble member gets their chance to shine. Aaron (Schanora Wimpie) delivers gripping poetry. Lilly (Zoë DePreta) and Paloma (Isa Ramos) are interviewed by Rita (Taylor Wisham) opening up about the perceptions of their race from others when they travel. Wisham delivers an infectious diatribe so momentous it could triumphantly end the show altogether. You can feel the personal stories bursting out in each moment and the weaving together of them shows the art of collaboration at its finest.
These moments among the women (especially when their energies rambunctiously feed off of one another) are so enjoyable you wish it was the entire show. Jack's stage time decreases over time, dashing in and out, and giving the performers their spotlight like any generous host would. But despite not physically being there, his presence remains. The show begins in his words and lives in his story, time and space. He also is a modern incarnation from Thomas Nashe's 1594 novel, The Unfortunate Traveller: or, the Life of Jack Wilton, so he's an extension of Nashe's words, story, time and space. There's a familiar pattern and herein lies the play's problem.
It's obvious from departure that Jack is not a true ally, though he would be offended at such an accurate statement. He obviously represents a type of person (predominantly seen in white men) we encounter in our lives who pretend to support women only to disassociate or ghost at the slightest turn of struggle. No good deed may go unpunished, but there's not even a slight repercussion given to Jack in his sugary, sickening performance of goodness. His story gets told, he gets all the credit for gathering this female ensemble, and despite his lack of physical presence this still is his show. While the focus is given to the female performers as it rightfully should, the championing of the play becomes difficult when it's perpetuating a white male driven narrative it claims to be arguing against.
I admired the choice to focus on examining when allyship rings false. It's especially relevant with the image of the white savior still being glorified and given accolades in our stories. (Hello, Best Picture winner Green Book.) This image is inexplicably intertwined with our history of colonization and cultural appropriation, subjects bound to arise when discussing traveling to other countries to this day. These heavy topics should be tackled and to showcase their complexity in a digestible, multi-faceted, humorous manner is impressive. Whereas other shows would make these subjects feel bloated, the bones of the play feel well-researched and there is never a shortage of laughs or something intriguing to keep your eyes glued to the stage.
Where I found myself getting lost was the choice of framework and source material. The women may be at the center of these performances, but they are still bringing to life some version of yet another pretentious, white man's one of a kind travelogue. When the concept of the show itself falls apart intentionally and almost immediately, it warrants searching for the purpose of having Jack exist as a character here at all. This questioning trickles down even further of the choice to loosely adapt Nashe's novel in the first place. The selection of topics at hand is relevant, but its origins as means of this dissection are achingly dated and still sting.
Instead of the clear issues embedded in the text, the play seems to suggest that martyr Jack suffers the most of all as he chooses to remain to live in his ignorance. He is his own worst enemy with the consequences of being alienated and ostracized by us, his audience. The reality however, is that we interact with Jacks everyday who aren't held accountable for their actions. While 2U2T promises escape, there's none to be found. We enter from, live in, and return to a world that is divided, false at times, and exhausting. If not offering escapism, but realism, what is the purpose of this exploration of truth that to us is a tale as old as time?
We know who deserves vacations and who doesn't. We know who should be afforded more opportunities, but aren't. We know of allies who are hidden foes who eventually unmask themselves revealing their true identities as idyllic heroes inevitably turn human. What then do we gain in turn if we possess this knowledge prior to this journey of learning these lessons? It feels like being invited to a magic show while being told step by step of how each trick is done.
The well-known expression, "It's the journey, not the destination", can't help but feel like a shackle in this instance. As theatre makers and applicable to all artists in general, we're tired of waiting for the arts to no longer be cis, white, hetero-normative dominated. We're tired of having people have to be the first in their race, gender, or sexual orientation to win an Oscar or a Grammy. While these are notable achievements, we all seek for these identities to be the normative in our media as the true mark of progress. An array of different perspectives and faces instead of one, both behind the scenes and performing them. The journey is significant, but at this rate feels endless, sometimes like we'll never reach the end.
2 Unfortunate 2 Travel ultimately doesn't lead us where we want to go. With an insistent, overcompensating tour guide, a trip that feels more around the block than the world, and in the end, left with some jet lag to show for it. It delivers a cruise of entertainment and showcases an abundance of talent that is worth tuning in for, but it can't seem to jump ship from ideas past that would make it more worthwhile to sort through the wreckage.