[Sidebar] The Worcester Phoenix
June 11 - 18, 1999
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Barre Players try to cell Our Country's Good

by Steve Vineberg

OUR COUNTRY'S GOOD By Timberlake Wertenbaker. Based on the novel The Playmaker by Thomas Keneally. Directed and set designed by Doug Ingalls. Lighting by Tom Powers. Costumes by Connie Budish, Tammy Cote, Jeannie Raymond, and Robbin Joyce. With Robin Gabrielli, Christine Creelman, Bruce Adams, Jeremy Woloski, Jessie Olson, Glenn MacDonald, Louise Dwyer-Huppert, Rebecca Gill, Edwin Kelley, Larry Johnson, Doug Ingalls, Kristen King, and Joe Cote. At Barre Players, through June 13.

In the English playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker's sprawling drama Our Country's Good, receiving its first local production by Barre Players, the governor of a settlement of British convicts in late 18th-century Australia, working out of a compassionate, Age of Reason vision of his charges, permits one of his lieutenants -- the cultivated Lieutenant Clark -- to stage a play with a handful of the inmates. The text Clark chooses is George Farquhar's comedy of manners The Recruiting Officer. Its elegance of language and gently satirical tone present such a striking contrast to the lives and backgrounds of the players that it becomes an emblem of their better selves, oppressed by their luckless circumstances, their often scandalously unjust sentences, their treatment at the hands of the cruel Major Ross, who mocks them and metes out their punishments with sneering smugness. Clark's challenge is to craft something beautiful out of the ugliness of the convicts' existence.

A sweet-natured humanist and a disdainful, sadistic overseer fight over the souls of the damned: Our Country's Good may be full of ideas, but it's absolutely a melodrama. The ideas belong to the great Australian novelist Thomas Keneally (the author of The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and Schindler's List), whose engaging 1987 volume The Playmaker furnished the source material for Wertenbaker's script. But Keneally is an ironist without a sentimental bone in his body, and Wertenbaker tumbles for the sentimental cliché every time. For example, in the novel Clark elects to cast Ketch Freeman, who only escaped a death sentence by agreeing to serve as the camp hangman, in order to alter the community's jaded view of Freeman -- to make him a comic figure rather than an ominous one. But in the play he has to beg Clark for the opportunity, in a long speech that casts him as a hapless innocent, a victim of circumstances, and he fights continuously to be called by his Christian name, James, rather than "Ketch," a nickname his new vocation has earned him. ("Ketch" is a reference to a famous English executioner.) Another scene where one of the Marines, Clark's friend Harry Brewer, struggles with the ghosts in his head of convicts he saw hanged is Gothic stuff of the most overwrought variety -- the ghost Wertenbaker seems to want to resurrect is the 19th-century actor Henry Irving as the decrepit old recluse reliving his buried crime in The Bells.

The Barre Players production is helmed by the multi-talented Doug Ingalls, who designed the clever set, directed the play, and even appears as the governor of the camp, Captain Arthur Phillip. Ingalls is a wonderful director, inventive at staging and highly skilled at coaching actors, but on this occasion his gifts are not much in evidence. Our Country's Good is static for the most part and a lot of the acting is feverishly overscaled, but in both cases I'd blame the play. For all the praise Wertenbaker has received in the decade since it was first produced, it's a shapeless lump of a script. She hasn't a clue how to dramatize anything, so the actors are stuck with long-winded, unplayable speeches like Harry Brewer's ghost rant and Ralph Clark's monologues to the portrait of his absent fiancée. The actors chained to these scenes (Bruce Adams and Robin Gabrielli, respectively) work hard at them, but to no avail. There are certainly bright spots among the performances, however: Jessie Olson is a lively, quick-witted Dabby Bryant, Glenn MacDonald is very moving as Ketch Freeman (he's the one actor who manages to transcend Wertenbaker's sentimentality), and as some of the other convict thespians Rebecca Gill, Edwin Kelley, Joe Cote, and Louise Dwyer-Huppert all have their moments.

With all due respect to a director striving to assemble a huge, immovable object of a play (the cast numbers 19), I'd single out two choices Ingalls has made that just add to his problems. One is the decision to have his actors try English accents. To my ear almost none of them sounds authentic, and I don't see the necessity for affecting them in the first place. The second is the idea of covering the scene shifts with eerie, expressionistic music. I didn't recognize the musical piece, but it's certainly effective -- twice, maybe three times. Unfortunately, the play contains 20 scenes, so we have to listen to it 19 times, and by act two I had to tamp down my impulse to go looking for the tape deck to throw it out the front door. Our Country's Good runs close to three hours; saturating it with an unvaried musical theme isn't an audience-friendly gesture.

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