By Tina Arth and Darrell Baker
It’s always a challenge to review a show we’ve never seen – or even heard of. With shows that are new to us, we sometimes find ourselves praising the actors’ ability to make the most of what is, in our estimation, a weak script. Happily, Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good, based on Thomas Keneally’s 1987 novel The Playmaker, is a superb piece of theater, and its power is only enhanced by Bag & Baggage’s fine production. Director Scott Palmer and his troupe (nine of ten cast members are members of the B&B Resident Acting Company) have a lot of fun bringing the play’s 22 characters to life, but there is no wacky quick-change shtick to trivialize the themes of the work (although it is, at times, tremendously funny).
The play is set at the end of the 18th century. A group of convicts, under the supervision of the Royal Marines, have been exiled to a penal colony in Australia. As the play opens unseen convicts are heard reacting to the flogging of one of the prisoners. Some time after the ship has landed, the colony’s governor, Captain Arthur Phillip, comes up with the idea that the prisoners’ rehabilitation might be effected by allowing them to put on a play – an idea that is met with derision and hostility by some of the other Marines. Despite this opposition (and the awkwardness of directing a largely illiterate prisoner cast, some bent on escape, others in chains or sentenced to hang), the play within a play must go on. Through their participation in the process, the relationship between the convicts and their jailors gradually shifts– thus illustrating the power of theater to transform the lives of those it touches.
One advantage of a repertory company is that, if the members are carefully chosen, there are no weak links – and this is certainly true of the Bag & Baggage players. With a cast this strong, it is difficult (but not impossible!) to select a few standout performances. Andrew Beck (Lieutenant Ralph Clark) seems almost too much the upright British officer, until one realizes that contemporary stereotypes are often based on authentic prototypes. While internally, his attitudes change, externally he maintains a stiff upper-lip throughout the production. Arianne Jacques (when playing convict Mary Brenham) is especially convincing as she blooms from a frightened and remorseful recluse to a leading lady and paramour to the buttoned-down Lieutenant Clark. Perhaps the most moving performance comes from Gary Strong (Captain Collins and Robert Sideway). As Collins, he is a vicious, small-minded bully of a fop – the man we most love to hate. As prisoner Sideway, he maintains a curious dignity even while writhing in pain, and the audience cannot help but cringe at the cruelty inflicted on him (ironically, by characters like Captain Collins).
Among other challenges, the cast is required (because of their multiple roles) to shift fluidly between a variety of accents appropriate to their social class and ethnic background. Colin Wood (Major Ross/Ketch) is particularly effective – he has mastered the distinctive dialects of a snooty Scots officer and a desperate Irish criminal/hangman.
The set, while simple, is remarkably evocative and functional. The huge hanging sheets create the effect of a ship’s sails, allow for seamless entrances and exits, facilitate fast scene changes, serve as the scrim for shadow play, and ultimately suggest the theater curtains for the convicts’ play. A few movable boxes and a cleverly constructed coffin/dinghy/table constitute the stage dressing.
Our only complaint (a minor one, at that) is the expository chanting between scenes. While some exposition is necessary, the spookily pretentious repetition is out of character with the gritty, grounded nature of the play. This is by no means a reason to stay home – Our Country’s Good is very, very good, and should not be missed.
Bag & Baggage’s Our Country’s Good is playing at Hillsboro’s Venetian Theatre, 235 E. Main Street, through Sunday, May 31 with performances Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m.