Ashland Theater Review: UniSon

Jul 18, 2017

A scene from OSF's production of Unison

Dorothy Velasco reviews Oregon Shakespeare Festival's production of UniSon, a musical based on the poetry of August Wilson.

“UniSon,” now playing at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, is original, gripping and deeply disturbing. This poetry-based musical hurls the audience into an ink-dark journey of the soul.

The poetry is by August Wilson, one of our greatest American playwrights. After Wilson’s death, his widow, Constanza Romero, came across hundreds of poems in a large trunk. Many were written before he became a playwright.

Unlike Wilson’s plays, “UniSon,” has little room for humor. Created by New York-based UNIVERSES, consisting of Steven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp and William Ruiz, with guidance from Romero, the 90-minute show hits us with epic strength.

The main character, brilliantly played by Sapp, is called the Poet. This is not Wilson, just as his plays are not about him. When the Poet dies, he leaves his estate to his apprentice, on the condition that she must destroy a trunk without opening it.

Well, who could do that? She opens it and the Poet’s spirit pops out, followed by a series of characters representing his seven terrors. Now we’re in for it.

The terrors, played by some of the festival’s leading actors, include a young seamstress who may be the Poet’s daughter, an aging boxer, a friend who takes a rap for the Poet and does jail time, a raging, murderous butcher, an abused young girl who becomes a vengeful hunter, the Poet’s well-meaning mother, and a soldier who dies young.

Every aspect of the show is superlative: the poetry, acting and singing, the direction by Robert O’Hara, the music by UNIVERSES with Broken Chord and Toshi Reagon, the set design by Christopher Acebo.

It’s not easy to absorb this dense material in one viewing, but as August Wilson wrote: Your willingness to wrestle with your demons will cause your angels to sing.