Ensemble Cast Shines in CWT’s ‘Our Country’s Good’ (4.5 stars)

by Mike Hoban

“Our Country’s Good” Written by Timberlake Wertenbaker; Directed by Meg Taintor; Set Design: Mac Young; Costume Design: Emily Woods Hogue. At The Charlestown Working Theater, 442 Bunker Hill St. Charlestown, MA through April 6, 2013 (Wednesdays and Thursdays 7:30pm, Fridays 8:00pm, Saturdays 3:00pm & 8:00pm, Sundays 3:00pm). www.charlestownworkingtheater.org

Those going to see the splendid production of “Our Country’s Good” and expecting to see a cliché warm and fuzzy tale about convicts bravely putting on a play against the odds while learning about themselves and the world around them might want to re-think their plans for the evening. This dark and often chilling production by Whistler in the Dark Theatre chronicles the early days of the convicts who first settled the British penal colony of Botany Bay in Australia around the time of the American Revolution. It offers an unflinching look at how these minor threats to society were treated as sub-human creatures – not so coincidentally at the same time that slavery was flourishing in the New World.

In the production, many of the prisoners are of the petty criminal variety – prostitutes, pickpockets and small time thieves – and are forced to withstand an eight month voyage from England to pay for their crimes on the other side of the world. Not long after the ship’s arrival, Harry Brewer (sympathetically played by Alejandro Simoes) comes to see his superior, Lieutenant Clark, about the nightmares/hallucinations he is experiencing. Harry is plagued by guilt about having hanged two men convicted of stealing food. Further exacerbating that guilt is that one of the hanged men was also vying for the affections of “Duckling”, a young convict woman whom Harry loves and is often driven to insane fits of jealousy over. The man’s ghost is slowly driving Harry mad with nightly visitations.

Meanwhile, Clark is seeking ways to curry favor with the newly appointed Governor Arthur Philip (Jayson Rory James), and takes a suggestion from Harry that one way to do so would be to put on a play as a way of “humanizing” the convicts – something the Governor is rather keen on. Clark brings his idea to the Governor at a gathering of the colony’s political, military and religious leaders and is begrudgingly granted permission to proceed. Clark chooses George Farquhar’s 1706 comedy “The Recruiting Officer” and starts holding auditions and rehearsals, but not without some grief from some of the Marines that take perverse pleasure in enforcing punishment on the convicts. During the process, some of the actors are severely flogged and one of the lead actresses – Liz Morden (Meredith Stypinski), a thief – is accused of stealing food and may be sentenced to hang. (Where’s the Actor’s Equity Association when you need them?) In addition, many of the “actors” are illiterate and belligerent to the process – which makes for some pretty funny scenes as Clark tries to whip the play into shape for a performance for the whole colony.

But the subplot of the play is set against the backdrop of the brutal conditions that the prisoners labor under, and is demonstrated through a series of vignettes. There’s Ketch (Chris Larson), the thief who is now the colony’s official hangman, who is reviled by the other convicts for accepting the choice to either “hang or be hanged” for stealing food; Wisehammer, the Jew who says he is innocent, feels he has no real country and isn’t quite accepted by fellow cons; and the constant struggles of Harry as he grapples with his guilt and sanity. The play also explores how a society metes out justice in such a heavy handed, moralistic way without considering circumstances like poverty and oppression.

This is a terrific ensemble piece, with all of the actors playing multiple roles: switching from convict to officer as well as Scotsman to Irishman to Brit. The accents are spot on and sometimes require a little work on the part of the audience to tune in and catch all of the dialogue. And with all of the character changes and set up, the play takes a little while to find its groove, but once it does it is truly absorbing. There are many standout individual performances, but the tortured characters of Harry and Ketch were the most compelling for me, as well as that of the sweet-faced Lynn Guerra, who plays the lead in the play within a play. The set design by Mac Young (who also does a convincing job as the high-status Lt. Clark) is spare and imaginative, and the scene changes are cleverly accompanied by the cast singing period songs.

The Charlestown Working Theater has also recently instituted a “pay what you want” policy, with a suggested ticket price of $25 for this worthy production. In addition, the play within the play, “The Recruiting Officer” will be performed in the middle of the run beginning March 22nd.

For more, see www.charlestownworkingtheater.org.