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Theater Thu Jan 16 2014

Shattered Globe Shows How Theater Creates a Community in Our Country's Good

In Our Country's Good, Shattered Globe Theatre looks at the trying times found by new residents--convicts and soldiers alike--in the colony of New South Wales, Australia, after the first fleet of English ships arrives. The time is 1788 and both convict and soldier long for their homeland. The play opens with a prisoner being flogged. Prisoners are mostly petty thieves, pickpockets and prostitutes and are subject to severe punishment such as flogging for petty theft or adultery, or hanging for robbery, burglary or forgery.

OurCountrysGood-GB.jpg

Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Some of the officers want to find a way to educate or entertain the prisoners to take their minds off the misery of limited food and water and to give their days some purpose. Captain Phillip, the governor (Drew Schad) expresses a humane view of the convict population, when he says "How do we know what humanity lies hidden under the rags and filth of a mangled life?"

Hearing that the convicts consider a hanging to be a form of entertainment, Phillip suggests organizing the convicts to put on a play. Ralph Clark, a second lieutenant (Stephen Peebles) takes up the idea and finds copies of a Restoration comedy called The Recruiting Officer. Most of the prisoners are illiterate so those who can read teach their lines to the others. Clark auditions the prisoners, leads them in learning their lines and then directs them in their performances. At first, the prisoners constantly bicker and scuffle but as they work together, they begin to see the effort as something for the common good. By play's end, they have created a "world in itself, a tiny colony, if you will" as one of the players describes it.

Our Country's Good gets off to a slow start, as the action is rather disjointed and somewhat confusing. But in the latter half of act one and in act two, the story comes together and the characters take shape. Director Roger Smart needs to smooth out the pace throughout the play. He uses extensive double-casting and quick on-stage costume changes from prisoner rags to uniforms. Sarah Jo White's costume designs make this work.

Most of the female actors double as soldiers or officers, not always smoothly. However, Eileen Nicolai, who plays a captain and the prisoner Liz Morden, sentenced to hanging for a crime she will not acknowledge, does an excellent job in both roles. Peebles and Schad also do well with their characterizations. Schad doubles as midshipman Harry Brewer and plays a sweet scene with his lover Duckling Smith (Mary Franke). Abbey Smith plays Mary Brenham, one of the prisoners who can read, showing us how her confidence in herself grows through the play. Christina Gorman is very good as Dabby Bryant, an outspoken prisoner, and Ben Werling plays the mean-spirited Major Ross and doubles as one of the prisoner actors.

British playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker adds diversity to the cast by including an "Australian aboriginal," played by Arch Harmon, who doubles as a convict, Black Caesar, and as an officer. A Jewish prisoner, John Wisehammer (Dillon Kelleher), imprisoned for stealing snuff, is wise in the use of language. He writes a prologue to the play, which defines the play's purpose: "We left our country for our country's good."

The playwright uses language to demonstrate the variety of social class represented by her characters. Captain Phillips, for example, is the most eloquent while the junior officers are less well-spoken and the prisoners have a variety of dialects, representing their social class and geographic origin in England. The accents are uneven, however, and some are difficult to understand. As the prisoners learn their parts, their own language improves. Liz Morden's speech is fragmented and vernacular at first. But when the officers interrogate her and try to decide whether to let her live so the play can continue, she insists "I will endeavor to speak (my) lines with the elegance and clarity their own worth commands."

The simple scene design by Roger Smart emphasizes the new civilization of the colony. Mike McNamara's lighting design focuses and moves the action along. Original music composed by Jeton Murtishi includes the occasional sound of the didgeridoo.

First produced in 1990, Wertenbaker's Our Country's Good is an adaptation of the novel, The Playmaker, written in 1987 by Thomas Keneally, the distinguished Australian writer, who used journals of some of the participants to write a fictionalized account of the first group to arrive in the penal colony.

Wertenbaker uses the play-within-a-play concept to create community within the world of prisoners and others who populate the newly settled colony. "A play within a play" is an ancient dramatist's device for conveying a message or providing a vehicle for dramatic action. Famously, Shakespeare's Hamlet asks the traveling players to perform "The Murder of Gonzago" to confront his mother and uncle with his suspicions about the murder of his father. Shakespeare also used the concept in Midsummer Night's Dream. Possibly the first use of the play-within-a-play is in Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy of about 1587.

Shattered Globe Theatre will present Our Country's Good at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., through February 22. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm. Tickets are $30 with some discounts available and can be purchased at the theater box office or online or by calling 773-975-8150. For more information, see the theater website.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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