Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Our Country's Good"

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note: entire contents copyright 2003 by Carl A. Rossi


by Timberlake Wertenbaker
adapted from the novel “The Playmaker” by Thomas Keneally

produced, directed and designed by John Fogle

Captain Arthur Philip, RN / John Arscott ... Jim Butterfield
Major Robbie Ross, MR / Ketch Freeman ... Stephen Cooper
Captain David Collins, MR / Robert Sideway ... Bob Karish
Captain Watkin Tench, MR / Meg Long ... Pauline Wright
Captain Jemmy Campbell, MR ... Jim Robinson
Midshipman Harry Brewer, RN ... Kevin Walker
Lt. Will Dawes, MR / John Wisehammer ... Dave Rich
Lt. George Johnston, MR / Duckling Smith ... Sara Shea
Reverend Johnson / Liz Morton ... Carrie Russell
Aboriginal Australian / Black Caesar ... Lonnie Farmer
2nd Lt. William Faddy, MR / Dabby Bryant ... Deborah Linehan
2nd Lt. Ralph Clark, MR ... Erik Rodenhiser
Mary Brenham ... Janet Dauray

There are only a few performances left of the Mugford Street Players’ production of OUR COUNTRY’S GOOD; its life span is so limited that its opening night is practically its closing one. Performances may be few, but on the night I attended there were plenty of seats and they deserved to better filled. And why not? It’s one of the year’s best productions.

Adapted from Thomas Keneally’s novel “The Playmaker”, itself based on a true incident, OUR COUNTRY’S GOOD is set in the Australia of the 1780s, where Sidney is little more than a God-forsaken penal colony, composed of British soldiers, jailers, executioners and, especially, those prisoners shipped like cattle out of England “for our country’s good”. In the midst of the inhospitable landscape, dwindling supplies, floggings and public hangings, 2nd Lieutenant Ralph Clark is assigned to direct a performance of George Farquhar’s Restoration comedy, THE RECRUITING OFFICER, casting prisoners (or “lags”) in the roles. Ralph has his work cut out for him: in addition to working with prisoners, most of them illiterate and some in the shadow of the gallows, the entertainment itself is viewed as treason by prigs and fellow officers, i.e., lags rising above their stations in a play that pokes fun at the British army. Brutality (on both sides of the lash) collides and counterpoints with Farquhar’s artificial comedy (and the nature of Theatre itself); the show does go on and one small step towards civilization is taken. Mr. Wertenbaker carves a lean, compelling tale out of Mr. Keneally’s rather dense novel and his plot changes are all for the better though it does help to have a passing knowledge of THE RECRUITING OFFICER, which remains a witty, worldly comedy.

As both director and designer, John Fogle has created a production as richly textured as, well, Mr. Keneally’s novel. On a spare, raked stage covered with an antique map of the southern hemisphere, two rust-red flights of stairs lead up to the gallows to climax in a crop of nooses --- a symbol of daily life hanging over the guilty and the not-so-blameless. However, Mr. Fogle builds his true scenery out of his actors: they group, they claw, they subdue and, most importantly, they ensemble (if such a verb exists). And there are images, unforgettable images: the opening tableau where the prisoners, flowing like flotsam in the ship’s hold, face their future in round-eyed despair; the first appearances of the Aborigine and Shitty Meg, the latter as much an exotic as the former; the visual change in the prisoners as Art touches their hardened lives --- perhaps the loveliest image is one where little action happens at all: on a beach at night, the stars above and the Dark New World behind them, Ralph and his fellow officers gather round a fire to discuss the pros and cons of putting on a play. The image is indelible because it is so right: no one moves, nor should they; here’s a sterling example of a director knowing when NOT to pull or push his actors about.

And Mr. Fogle’s cast is glorious. First, their performances come from within and not from a director’s vision that leaves them stillborn amidst the spectacle (as some recent Shakespeare has proven); second, their performances are distinctly English --- not because they speak with various accents (and speak them well) but because they are so blessedly theatrical: the love of ripe, even grotesque, characterizations; the submersion into their roles at the risk of not coming off as pretty or handsome. Paradoxically, the quiet, firm and not-at-all grotesque Erik Rodenhiser binds it all together as Ralph Clark; when handed sparking jewels ‘tis easy to overlook the frame they’re set in, yet Mr. Rodenhiser is believable both as an officer (the type who suggests, not bellows, orders) and as a sudden man of the theatre. To single out others would mean slighting the rest yet if faced with the lash myself I would throw extra laurels to Carrie Russell and Deborah Linehan as the more feral of the she-lags, Bob Karish’s hilarious yet touching Sideway --- all bobbing, scraping and flopping of hair --- Jim Robinson as Captain Campbell (one part, spleen; one part, grog) and, reliably, that valued fellow, Jim Butterfield, who doubles as Captain Philip (the Voice of Reason) and John Arscott, the flogged prisoner who enters into the play to escape the life around him.

Jean Fogle, Francie King, Karen Mathews, and Jennifer Rich have come up with impressive costumes: the officer’s blue and white uniforms, immaculate amidst the barbarism, and the foul rags of the prisoners --- more “real” than real rags would look and smell (though Ms. Russell’s Liz not combing out her hair before making her stage debut is a mystery). Kevin M. Walker has contributed a richly atmospheric soundtrack.

Earlier this year I bemoaned the fact that an excellent actor such as Mr. Butterfield seems to find better, more deserving roles outside of Boston. Now I have seen Mr. Butterfield on his home turf --- he is a Mugford regular --- and am delighted to find him in equally excellent company. Nor would a play as harsh and uncompromising as OUR COUNTRY’S GOOD find a quick audience in our fair city. Therefore, Bostonians shouldn’t grumble when told that memorable theatre can be found outside the city limits --- especially when memorable theatre cannot easily come to them --- and for only a few performances, at that.

"Our Country’s Good" (25 July-3 August)
Marblehead High School Auditorium, 2 Humphrey Street, MARBLEHEAD, MA
1 (781) 639-0195

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