When audiences first see the red gravel landscape of New South Wales, it is carefully raked into an elegant maze-like pattern, using gentle curved lines and circles that are common elements of Aboriginal art. But then the British soldiers come ashore with convicts in tow, and it does not take long for the original artistry of the land to be obliterated. Watching the ship unload its human cargo on her shores, a lone native woman describes the scene as “a dream which has lost its way.”
So begins American Players Theatre’s production of Our Country’s Good, running through October 7 in the Touchstone Theatre. The stunning play by Timberlake Wertenbaker is based on historical events of the late 18th century in a newly established penal colony in Australia. It chronicles the struggles of all who were present: English men and women who were sentenced to “transportation” for a wide range of crimes; the soldiers who were sent to this remote outpost of the British Empire, trying to bring order and discipline to their charges and adapt to the foreign land; and the Aboriginal people, who watched their home being invaded by Europeans.
Captain Philip (a commanding Jefferson A. Russell) paces over that same red gravel pondering the food shortages, disorderly conduct, prostitution and brutality for the sake of it that plague his prison. Musing philosophically with his men, he wonders whether criminals are born evil or made unlawful by circumstance, and questions their opportunities for redemption. When it’s reported that the threat of lashings has little effect on the convicts’ behavior and public hangings are their favorite form of entertainment, Philip proposes introducing the inmates to a much more refined spectacle — a play. And so the young and ambitious Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark (Nate Burger) volunteers to direct a production of The Recruiting Officer using prisoners for the cast. Although many of his fellow soldiers ridicule the project and try to derail it, over the course of several months of rehearsal, the actors and their director are profoundly changed by the experience.
Directed masterfully by Ameenah Kaplan, Our Country’s Good completely captivated the capacity crowd at the opening performance. Here are a few reasons why:
The Play within a Play. From Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Noises Off and The Play that Goes Wrong, there’s something inherently fun in watching actors onstage, pretending to be actors preparing to go on a smaller stage. The rehearsal scenes are chaotic and fun, with actors doing what they have always done; complaining about their parts, defying the director, fishing for compliments, and struggling to learn their lines. Juan Rivera Lebron is a particularly lovable ham as the former London pickpocket with a penchant for Drury Lane performances. And Carl Bryant's wide eyes perfectly capture the terror of opening night for a new actor.
The Other Play within a Play. APT gave audiences a gift this season by programming The Recruiting Officer during the first half of the summer and Our Country’s Good—which riffs extensively on a performance of that play—as fall approaches. No, you don’t have to see one before the other to understand the show, but you’ll get many more of the jokes if you do. Also, you’ll have the pleasure of seeing some members of The Recruiting Officer cast reprising the same parts in a very different context, while others swap parts with their castmates. Nate Burger as Plume and Cristina Panfilio as Rose are completely engaging in both versions.
Mind-Blowing Staging. Deceptively simple scenic design by Takeshi Kata uses long panels of dyed fabric to create stage curtains, tent flaps, ships’ sails, other locales. Actors manipulate the drapes to effortlessly change the scene. Lighting design by Jason Fassl paints the fabric in dozens of variations that are evocative of the heat and the punishing landscape. Kaplan positions actors on virtually every step, in each aisle, taking over all the possible playing spaces until the play engulfs the audience.
The Ensemble. The group of 10 actors plays a total of 22 parts, switching class, accents, and genders, in the blink of an eye. Lightning fast costume changes and immersive blocking mean that actors frequently exit up the stairs through the audience and reemerge as a new character on the other side of the house. As challenging as the doubling must be for the performers, it is fascinating to watch the actors switch back and forth between roles seamlessly.
Beautifully Detailed Performances. Jefferson A. Russell contorts his body and walks pigeon-toed as a soft spoken convict with a love of language he discovered by reading a dictionary. Brian Mani is haunted by the ghosts of prisoners he’s executed, and they are so vivid the spirits are practically in the room. Kelsey Brennan’s dead eyes sink into her skull as the convict Liz Morden, barely concealing an explosive rage. Her slang-heavy monologue describing an early betrayal by her own father is a feat of expression. The longing Nate Burger displays as Clark gazes into a picture of his wife, thousands of miles away, is palpable.
Echoing Layers of Meaning. Both The Recruiting Officer and Our Country’s Good pit corrupt military men against the poor and uneducated. Each speaks of duty, loyalty, the freedom to be found in taking on a different identity, and the inconstant hearts of charming lieutenants. Each reveals that regardless of our title, we are all more similar than different.