2 Unfortunate 2 Travel is one of those shows that want you to have your cake and hate it too.
This never-uninteresting variety show/revue, in its world premiere now at Chicago’s Prop Thtr, has two goals in mind for its audience: To entertain us, and to make us feel bad about having been entertained. Created by Zach Weinberg and Olivia Lilley, it’s a provocative admixture that is likely to stick with audiences long after they’ve gotten into their Lyfts and gone home.
The ensemble cast, consisting of six women (Zoe DePreta, Callie Harlow, Jourdan Lewanda, Isa Ramos, Schanora Wimple and Taylor Wisham) and one man (Joseph Ramski) offers up a colorful olla podrida of Irish dance, stand-up and sketch comedy, poetry, doggerel, memoir, fiddling, singing, cardboard models, dolls, clever sound effects and audience participation. There also is a hilarious staring contest and a marshmallow-eating challenge (the audience member selected for this competition on the night I attended was disappointingly uncapacious.)
All of these seemingly random elements are winningly performed, and are somewhat reminiscent of the long-running Chicago production of Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, a show that I suspect influenced this one, though 2 Unfortunate 2 Travel is better in all respects than that rather overrated theatrical fixture.
Much of the revue is organized around the travel diary of the character played by Ramski, who also serves as the edgy and emotional emcee. Sometimes Ramski relays his character’s globe-trotting experiences himself, and sometimes they are narrated, directly from a journal, by the various actresses. The latter creates some thought-provoking disjunctions, as when one of the actresses reads the male character’s account of his inebriated experiences at a Mexican party and his hungover stumble back to his resort. Because it’s easy at times to forget that the experiences are not those of the woman reading the journal, there is an extra layer of anxiety created by our awareness that women are far more vulnerable to random attacks in unfamiliar settings than men are, swiftly followed by a concomitant reminder that men have more freedom than women do to wander, go to strange parties, and get lost.
This implicit privilege is one of the show’s organizing themes, one of its strengths, and also one of its weaknesses. As the show opens, Ramski announces that this performance will be an apolitical “safe space” and that while his world travels were intended to shake off his depression and anger over the election of Donald Trump, he and his castmates would endeavor to keep things fun, or, as he rather plaintively puts it, “can’t anything just be lighthearted now?”
Well, no. Apparently they can’t. As the revue proceeds, the lightheartedness is regularly interrupted by political, social and racial commentary, most of it by the six female ensemble members. There is, for example, a brief interlude by Harlow, a Sissy Spacek type, who makes some acute points about the way in which relatively privileged people minimize their travel experiences so as not to make the less fortunate feel bad about their own immobility. Less effective are a couple of (presumably fictional, though it’s not clear) unpleasant racial experiences that are presented in a puzzlingly flat and not particularly heartfelt way by two of the other actresses.
The self-consciousness and guilt that for too many people accompanies the enjoyment of the world and its bounties is what this show is ultimately all about. In that sense, the show has something of a Brechtian quality; it provides pleasurable entertainment (a microcosm of, and symbol for, the larger entertainments represented by global travel and other privileged pastimes) and then yanks the rug out from under us by reminding us periodically that these entertainments are not only a product of our privilege but can be a distraction from the world’s problems and in some cases contribute to them. There is a great deal of social consciousness and genuine desire to make things better on display here, though not unaccompanied by a tincture of premature embitterment and of overly familiar received opinion.
2 Unfortunate 2 Travel is an experience very much like reading the Sunday New York Times, in particular the print edition. You read the travel and entertainment sections and are suffused with a mixture of vicarious pleasure and envy about all the wonders the world has to offer; then you peruse the ads and the real estate sections and think about all the ways your home could be nicer; then you read the news section and worry that these luxuries are all going away as the world descends into chaos; and then you read the gloomy analyses and admonishing editorials and gaze at the piles of soon-to-be-discarded paper at your feet, and you feel a sense of guilt and disgust at your wanton consumerism and never-ending wants.
While the show is worthwhile and very well-produced, I left it with a sense of melancholy that these characters (and presumably the real-life actors that created them) find it difficult to enjoy anything about this world without an ever-present accompaniment of angst and guilt. There is, in particular, a stagy and insincere moment at the end of the show that is in effect a repudiation by the ensemble of all of the pleasures that came before, and that has the effect on the audience of sticking a pin in a colorful balloon. Yes, that’s the intent of the scene, and it works all too well, but it leaves me wondering why these characters agreed to perform all of the colorful parts to begin with, and didn’t just create a full-fledged and fully political play that cuts to the bone.
In fact, I found myself agreeing with the emcee’s earlier declaration that it is okay to just be lighthearted sometimes. Not all privilege is bad or unearned; not everything about our current political situation is hopeless; and not everything about our world is getting worse; indeed, a strong case could be made that, at this present moment, humanity is in better shape than it has been since the dawn of recorded time.
Near the end of the show, one of the actresses plays acoustic guitar and sings a lovely version of the Beatles’ ethereal “Across the Universe,” with its memorable refrain, “nothing’s gonna change my world.” It’s meant to illustrate a bucolic moment in the emcee’s world travels, and as such it works beautifully. But I found myself thinking about some of the straitened attitudes of the characters, and perhaps of the creative team and ensemble that created them, and musing, “well, your world will, in fact, change, and it’s far more likely, present difficulties aside, that’ll it change for the better rather than for the worse.”