Kala Ross & Isaiah Hein in Our Country’s Good. Photo courtesy UofL Dept of Theatre Arts.
Our Country’s Good
By Timberlake Wertenbaker,
Adapted from the Thomas Keneally novel “The Playmaker”
Directed by Baron Kelly
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2017 Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
The importance of the arts to society is never in question for the artist. Their faith lies in the power of art to change the world for the better. In Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play, Our Country’s Good, the redemptive power of theatre is celebrated in a surprising historical context.
In 1788, British prison ships arrive at Botany Bay, Australia, to settle the penal colony at Port Jackson, the site of current-day Sydney. When hope and supplies run low, a lieutenant tries to increase morale by staging a comedy, The Recruiting Officer by George Farquhar, using the convicts as the cast.
This description, from the University of Louisville Theatre Arts Program’s press materials, sounds like Hollywood contrivance but is true, and the absurdity of producing a play in such unlikely circumstances is heightened by the resistance and brutality routinely exercised in the penal colony. British naval discipline was harsh, and that the subjects were criminals cast-off thousands of miles from civilization gave little reason for mercy. Yet the expedition’s leader and Governor of the settlement, Captain Arthur Phillips (LaShonda Hood), commands the play be produced as a rehabilitative measure, against the complaints of the mean-spirited Major Robbie Ross (Zack Stone). The Captain assigns Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark (Michael Stein), a more civilized and compassionate junior officer, to manage the production.
Several of the convict cast members are immediately accused of stealing food from the dwindling supplies, exacerbating the conflict between Clark and Ross. But while the initial rehearsals are somewhat chaotic, the level of commitment from the convicts increases, and the significance of the production takes on a whole new meaning.
Although Our Country’s Good enjoys a strong reputation, the text doesn’t realize the full potential of the story. Director Baron Kelly has mounted a handsome production, and, with the help of dialect coach Rachel Hillmer, his actors manage a most impressive set of British voices. At times the embrace of dialect made some of the dialogue difficult to comprehend, and some plot points suffered because of it, but it all sounded authentic and the delivery was sustained.
Michael Stein made Clark an upstanding Englishman in the classic mold, full of virtue and then swooning and romantic as he falls for Mary Brenham (Grace Roth), the lead in The Recruiting Officer. Lo Abdelmalek is a standout as Liz Morden, a tough-as-nails criminal who represents the most profound change towards the play among the prisoners. Isaiah Hein as Midshipman Harry Brewer and Kala Ross as Duckling Smith both do well with their tragic romance, and Terry Tocantins is a hoot as Robert Sideways, a pickpocket who wildly and comically overplays his role in Clark’s rehearsals. Zack Stone is a suitably sadistic and cruel Major Rose, and slips in and out of his double duty as one of the convicts with ease. Many in the cast play dual roles – the script was constructed to be played by as few as 10 people, but Kelly employs a total of 15 actors to realize the 22 characters, including Manuel Vivernos as an Aborigine who observes and comments on the action throughout.
There is not a bad performance among the lot, although small things detract. The design work was overall very good, but the convicts are all made up to look “dirty” with brown make-up that seems overdone and too consistent, and the occasional physical action feels inauthentic: the action of rowing a boat, for example. They mar a production filled with performances well grounded in strong emotions and keep the strongest moments of loss and triumph from having their full impact.
Wertenbaker’s recognition of the power of the human spirit to overcome even the most hopeless of circumstances is powerful, but there is also a canard represented by the Aborigine observer. The greatest testament to the resilience
Shown by the people of the colony is that their struggle to survive gave birth to modern day Australia, but at what cost to the indigenous culture already in place? The brutally subjugated prisoners find hope to survive in art and culture, but perhaps it is worth noting that it is the art and culture of an Empire and that it would rise to suffer that same subjugation on the Aboriginal population that here watches from a distance, witness to the sins of the European world now landed on the shores of his homeland.
Our Country’s Good
November 10, 11, 16, 17 & 18 @ 8:00pm
November 12 & 19 @ 3:00pm
Individual tickets are $15 for general admission, $12 for faculty, alumni and seniors and $8 for UofL students. To order tickets or for more information, click here, call 502-852-7682 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
University of Louisville Dept of Theater Arts
U of L Playhouse
1911 South Third Street
Louisville, KY 40292
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of PUBLIC on WXOX-FM 97.1/ ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.