Its choice of British playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker’s OUR COUNTRY’S GOOD, based on Thomas Keneally’s novel THE PLAYMAKER, well fulfills the company’s goal.
OUR COUNTRY’S GOOD, which won the 1988 Laurence Olivier Award for Play of the Year, was nominated as Best Play for the 1991 Tony Award, and won the 1991 New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for the Best Foreign Play, concerns a group of Royal Marines and convicts in a penal colony in New South Wales in the 1780s.
“The convicts and Royal Marines were sent to Australia to set up the first penal colony in what we now know as Australia. The area was selected as it was far from England, the convicts would no longer be a menace to the ‘civilized’ people of the isle, and the territory would become yet another possession in the far-reaching British Empire.”
“The play shows the class system in the convict camp and discusses themes such as sexuality, punishment, the Georgian judicial system, and the idea that it is possible for ‘theatre to be a humanizing force’.”
Most of the characters in the play are based on real people who sailed with the First Fleet though some have had their names changed.
As the play evolves, we find a lieutenant being tasked with putting on a play to celebrate the king's birthday. The catch? His cast members are the English convicts. Few of them can read, let alone act, and the play is being produced against a background of food shortages and barbaric punishments. Some of the convicts are violent, some are prostitutes banned from England because of their immoral life styles, others are petty criminals sent away for pick-pocketing or speaking against the crown, while others are mentally ill. They, of course, continue to act out while incarcerated.
To make matters worse, several of the soldiers are masochistic sadists, bent on punishing the convicts through starvation and beatings. Others soldiers have compassion for the convicts. The factions conflict.
The cast of ten, Abraham Adams, Scott Esposito, Jeannine Gaskin, Benjamin Gregg, Natalie Sander Kern, Daniel McKinnon, Brett Radke, James Rankin, Meriah Sage, and Lana Sugarman, portray 22 different characters, some playing both convicts and officers.
Esposito, alone, develops a single character, the pivotal, 2nd Lieutenant Ralph Clark, a compassionate soul who directs the play within the play, and finds a humanness in each of the convicts who take roles in the production.
Craig Joseph effectively directs, with scenic design by Micah Harvey, costume design by George McCarty II, lighting design by Ayron Lord, sound design by Megan Slabach, and properties design by Lisa L. Wiley. Intimacy direction is by Casey Venema and fight direction is guided by Ryan Zarecki. Voice and dialect coaching is by Chuck Richie.
While a captivating topic, exposing the viewers to a part of history to which few Americans have been exposed, the experience is generally positive, but not without problems.
While the cast is excellent, most of the portrayals are believable, and the staging creative, the constant moving of the boxes which made up the set pieces, became very distracting and dragged out the play’s length.
The script, as written, is over 2-and-a-half hours, with an intermission. Heavy script cutting not only would have shortened the sit, but brought a clearer focus.
The director is to be praised for insisting on authenticity in accents, but the unfamiliar sounds were often impossible to understand. As is often done in Shakespeare plays intended for American audiences, it might have been wise to lighten the intonations.
Be warned: Reinberger Auditorium, at least the night I saw the show, was like a frozen tundra. The wearing of warm clothing would have been helpful.
The pre-publicity and program warn: “OUR COUNTRY'S GOOD contains several instances of physical violence and menace related to incarceration, colonialism, and corporal punishment, including discussion of - but no portrayal of - death by hanging. There is also discussion of - but no portrayal of - non-consensual sexual intimacy.” Don’t let that detour you. There are “horrors,” but not vivid enough to cause strong reaction.
Capsule judgment: OUR COUNTRY’S GOOD exposes the viewer to a part of history not well known to many. The overly-long script gets a creditable staging by Seats of the Pants Productions. It is worth the sit for anyone interested in probing theater.
OUR COUNTRY’S GOOD runs Friday and Saturday nights @ 8 and Sundays @ 2 through August 21 at Reinberger Auditorium, 5209 Detroit Avenue, Cleveland. For tickets: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/our-countrys-good-by-timberlake-wertenbaker-tickets-373024525397