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Zealous Australian drama ends up less than 'Good'

Plays about a play have been a favorite medium for nearly as long as theater has existed. The Drama Department's production of Timberlake Wertenbaker's "Our Country's Good," showing in the Culbreth Theatre at 8 p.m. this Wednesday through Saturday, continues this tradition.

The script, set in Sydney, Australia, in 1788, in the early years of the British penal colony of New South Wales, obsesses over the idea of a play within a play. This device, combined with the historical setting, gives the play lots of potential - most of which it fails to utilize. The show has its moments, but larger difficulties condemn it to mediocrity.

Wertenbaker adapted his script from Thomas Keneally's historical novel, "The Playmaker." Thus, the play is grounded in real events, like England's practice of shipping unwanted individuals convicted under its harsh criminal law (simple theft was a capital crime) halfway around the globe to Australia.

Captain Arthur Phillip (Anselm Clinard), as governor of the new colony, decides to have the prisoners produce a play as an experiment in rehabilitation and the civilizing influences of culture. Lieutenant Ralph Clark (Chris Harcum) takes on the task of directing the play and turning prisoners into actors.

The best part of the production is Susannah M. Barnes' set design, which uses angular poles and frames that mimic human bones in shape. Her work highlights the play's interest in exposing the skeletal common denominator of humanity beneath the surface of social artifice.

This physical environment lends itself to the social experiment of staging a play in a penal colony, which seems compelling at times. The project does humanize the prisoner/actors in an endearing way. More broadly, it brings up important themes and questions. Does art have the power to redeem lives and unify a group? How would or should one respond after having been cast forcibly out of one's country (supposedly, for that country's good)? How can one find humanity amid power, law and punishment?

These are promising questions. But "Our Country's Good" doesn't do much to examine them. The script feels over-ambitious and the subject matter under-explored.

For instance, the play's circumstances create the potential for interesting conflict and dialogue. Irish, Scottish and English characters of differing social positions clash with each other and then all butt up against the foreign Aboriginal domain. This could lend itself to a powerful examination of the effect of imperialism on both the colonizers and the colonized. But it doesn't.

All it does manage to do, with respect to this rich area of intersection, is dabble in the realm of dialect. The characters employ heavily accented speech reflective of their diversity. I'm not quite sure why. It's too superficial to have anthropological appeal. As it is, it only makes the play's dialogue considerably harder to understand without furthering any goal of a larger examination of cultural themes.

"Our Country's Good" also seems disturbingly naive and accepting in the realm of race and gender. The strongest female in the play is Mary Brenham (Stephanie Austin), who plays the lead in the play-within-the-play. Yet she succumbs, painfully predictably, to Lt. Clark's desires. Brenham rejects the more believable affections of John Wisehammer (Dan Perez, in the play's most convincing performance) and falls, more or less, into Lt. Clark's lap. But of course, Wisehammer is a Jew, which seems, in the world of the play, to demand punishment and rebuke.

Racial issues fare worse. The prisoners exhibit unity only in abusing and threatening the sole black prisoner, Caesar (Nicholas Holden), when he doesn't want to go through with the play. And a single, token Aborigine (Edward Daniels) lurks in the background of the action. He doesn't get to speak until Act Two, and even then, he only gets a few lines of isolated soliloquy, spoken in unaccented English.

To be sure, the play's setting necessitates sub-optimal treatment of women and minorities. But both the playwright and the director have opportunities to work against history by developing these marginalized and largely passive characters into individuals who possess and demonstrate strength of character, even if the external demands of culture and power ultimately dictate their actions.

Missed opportunities like this leave the play lacking. It does achieve good, comedic moments. But the humor is spaced out, embedded in muddled social examination. Like the colony of New South Wales, "Our Country's Good" feels severely underdeveloped.


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