Normally it is producers and fledgling, self producing directors who argue for the necessity of theatre in a world where such pursuits may be considered frivolous, lewd and a waste of time. It is therefore fascinating to take in an exploration of the good of theatre in a full length play, as the REP does now with OUR COUNTRY’S GOOD by Timberlake Wertenbaker.
This is where being a theatre artist myself gets in the way of offering a true review of the subject – I already wholeheartedly believe in the power of theatre to do real and lasting good in the world, and so the play was preaching to my choir. Anyone who saw this play without this perspective is encouraged to leave a comment with your thoughts on the matter.
OUR COUNTRY’S GOOD takes place in Australia while it was still a prison colony, and is based on actual events. Captain Arthur Phillip (John Plumpis), put in charge of a group of prisoners and officers, feels it would be to the benefit of all to have the convicts put on a play. 2nd Lieutenant Ralph Clark (Michael Gotch) gets wind of this and submits himself to direct The Recruiting Officer. Players are chosen not necessarily for their acting talent or even ability to read, but rather the perceived personal benefit for being in a play. Prisoners Mary Benham – a (one time?) prostitute, played by Elizabeth Heflin, and love interest for 2nd Lt. Clark, and Liz Morden (Deena Burke), on a trial for her life while rehearsing in chains, are of particular interest to the Captain.
The REP takes on a more Brechtian approach than in other productions seen this year, especially in consistent choices to remind the audience that we are watching a play. Scene titles are spoken aloud, many costume changes are completed in full view of the audience. A note about the play in the program insists these devices exist to make sure we are listening to the arguments of the play rather than getting captivated by the story. For many of the actors, leaving the comfort zone of a consistent, linear, realistic storyline caused discomfort in the world of the play. For some, this was a great blessing. For others, it led to disappointingly shallow performances.
Deena Burke delivers an extraordinary performance as Liz Morden, coupled with an understated but hilarious bit as Lt. Will Dawes. Steve Tague brings a subtle power to his role as the reluctant hangman Ketch Freeman. Mr. Plumpis, as the captain and also aspiring writer John Wisehammer has a delightful energy and serves as an anchor for the entire play. Our other new face, Donte Fitzgerald, is equally strong, although his roles are unfortunately written as little more than racial stereotypes. If this was to be additive to the story, I missed the point, although I do praise Mr. Fitzgerald for his performance in the roles that had the weakest writing behind them.
The play is beautifully designed by R. H. Graham, with a sandbox set, and all locations indicated by sails on pulleys. The costumes manage to be specific enough that I always knew which character an actor was, (all actors but Mr. Gotch play multiple roles) but general enough that the addition or subtraction of a single piece was enough to suggest a change.
Overall, I did feel that the production as well as performances held back on their punches. There is a brief, famous moment of nudity in the play that in this production is chaste and played upstage. Whether this was a preference of the actress or the REP choosing not to display the human body onstage seems beside the point – the moment was lost. Violence was all but left out of this production, except for a wonderful stylized whipping at the top of the show. The effect of all of this, and the real problem, is that this felt like a history lesson, but I was never sure why I should care.
As always, I highly recommend a trip to the REP for anyone who has never been there before. Their fundraising initiative is the most enjoyable of all theatres locally – bring someone with you who has never been to the REP before – the quality of the REP is unquestioned. The play runs just over 3 hours, with one intermission.
OUR COUNTRY’S GOOD
By Timberlake Wertenbaker
Directed by Joseph Hanreddy
March 8-23, 2012
Resident Ensemble Players
University of Delaware
Newark, DE 19716