ktc's "Our Country's Good"
Saturday at 8 p.m.
Timberlake Wertenbaker’s 1988 metadrama about a British officer’s attempt to stage a play in an Australian penal colony is packed with story lines. Unfortunately, they are overwritten, underdeveloped and only sometimes engaging.
Kenan Theatre Company's “Our Country’s Good,” based on a true story recounted in the journals of British naval officers, follows a production of George Farquhar’s “The Recruiting Officer” that was staged by a group of convicts under the direction of Officer Ralph Clark, played by Byron Frazelle. Despite opposition from many colonial officials, Clark embarks on a social experiment to see if theater might have a more rehabilitating effect on the convicts than the threat of hanging. During the rehearsal process, he faces extreme difficulties and comes to empathize with the prisoners’s plight, eventually falling in love with his leading lady, Mary, played by Rachael Tuton.
The first act is bogged down by an unnecessary amount of historical and character details that add little to the play’s development, and prolonged highbrow Q&A scenes that felt more like staged sociopolitical essays than naturalistic dialogue. Narrative progress and scene transitions are not particularly fluid, and the slow pacing is further hindered by the onstage costume changes necessitated by character doubling. The pace only picks up once the convicts start exploring the world of the play in the final scene of act one, and the characters become more relatable in act two.
Wertenbaker’s script is crowded with themes about the nature of justice, sex as power and commodity, class and culture, the founding of Australia as a prison, the redemptive power of love, and the civilizing effects of theatre. This may sound like a lot for one play to take on — and it is. So many themes are addressed that the show at times becomes frustratingly didactic while failing to fully address any one issue. This is most evident in the inclusion of an unnamed aboriginal figure — played majestically by Caroline Strange — who curiously watches the plot unfold, which seems almost a grafted-on, superficial attempt to address the colony’s impact on the Australian natives.
The same problem of overreaching applies to the multitude of characters depicted. The 13-person cast, while admirably strong in their main roles, is spread a little thin between the 22 named roles covered between them. A number of actors seem to be fighting an uphill battle against their assigned dialects — which, while based in authenticity, are not easily intelligible — and are at times unable to back the poetic language with appropriate emotional intensity. It is difficult to empathize with characters because the play jumps from subplot to subplot so rapidly that relationships and chemistry between them are not adequately established.
Despite these difficulties, there are some brilliant performances. Angel Giddens’s portrayal of the sadistic Major Ross is properly terrifying, and Noah Lieberman’s interpretation of her sidekick, Captain Campbell, offers some much-needed comedic relief. Tuton plays the smart, shy character of Mary with graceful timidity, and Peter Vance brings a refreshing touch of dry humor as her admirer, Wisehammer. Abigail Coryell’s devastatingly lovely and gritty portrayal of Liz Morden is a highlight of the production, as is Allen Tedder’s mastery of the demanding dual-roles of haunted Midshipman Harry Brewer and flamboyant pickpocket-turned-actor Robert Sideway.
Though the cohesively stunning set, costume, lighting and sound design all help to create credible stage worlds, the impact of the piece is blunted by unsteady dialects, slow pacing and a convoluted narrative structure.
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