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Chicago Arts Scene Commentary

for the Week of May 7, 2001

Theater Review:

"OUR OUNTRY'S GOOD" at Strawdog Theatre


In Timberlake Wertenbaker’s experimental-historical drama, "Our Country’s Good," theater – not death – is the great equalizer. Moreover, it’s viewed as "a dignifying force" and a place where class divisions evaporate. Strawdog Theatre’s ambitious production carries the work to an inventive metaphoric level and commendably overcomes Wertenbaker’s tendency to over-write and veer off on puzzling tangents.

Set in 1788, this epic play is based on a true story and addresses the British initiative to send its most dangerous convicts to Australia in order to avoid a revolution. But famine and sadistic punishment plague this convict colony on the brink of chaos. When the Governor, a product of the Enlightenment, encourages the idealistic Lieutenant Ralph Clark to direct the criminals in a production of George Farquhar’s comedy of manners, "The Recruiting Officer," both men face the ridicule and rage of military officials intent on the severest of corporeal punishment.

But the optimistic thespians prevail – even when faced with a year-long rehearsal period and forced to replace actors who have been hanged. Imagine the sheer will power of these incarcerated "actors" who must perform in scenes with their potential executioner or their willingness to crawl to rehearsal after enduring 100 lashes.

Structurally, "Our Country’s Good" is more than a play-within-a-play. It’s one magnified play even in its real-life sequences. So director Shade Murray has judiciously chosen to emphasize an imaginative theatrical conceit – evident in everything from Lynn Koscielniak’s tableau-like lighting to Sarah Pace’s weather-worn costumes atop street clothes and painted signs announcing the title of each scene.

Picking up on Lieut. Clark’s belief that "in the theater, you have to imagine you’re someone different," Murray allows the audience to be transported through the power of resourceful suggestion. One of the most brilliantly crafted moments is a pantomimed rowing scene between the tormented midshipman Harry Brewer and his evasive convict-lover, Duckling Smith, in which their movement melds with sound designer Chris J. Johnson’s lugubrious lapping water. Scenic designer David Wolf works wonders in Strawdog’s small space. His deftly positioned panels shift from the bowels of a ship to a smoky bivouac in an instant.

Although this is a stirring production with an exceptionally strong cast, "Our Country’s Good" suffers from a lack of focus and dramatic consistency. There are baffling moments involving the too-brief speeches of an Aborigine; and Harry and Duckling’s troubled relationship is explored tangentially. In fact, the pair disappears for a good part of play. It’s easy to lose track of their plight. The play also vacillates between moments of sublime, cutting humor (especially during the rehearsal scenes) and excruciating boredom – made more bearable by the engaging performances. The show clocks in at almost three hours.

Yet a seamless synergy courses through the cast that refuses to succumb to roguish Cockney or stiff officer cliches. Even though this is a play about acting, the actors are very real human beings.

Standouts include Kyle Hamman’s gently determined Lieut. Ralph Clark; Tim Curtis’ stalwart Governor; Elizabeth Rich as a feisty prostitute intent on getting a starring role; Stacy Parker as the kind, waifish leading lady; Lisa Rothschiller’s embittered Liz, condemned to death; Michael Dailey’s tragic Harry Brewer; John Ferrick’s wily pickpocket/ham actor; and Jennifer Avery in a measured performance as the grieving Duckling. •

"Our Country’s Good" runs through June 10 at Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway. Tickets: $15. Call 773-528-9696.

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