Sunday, March 17, 2013

A Voyage to The Australian Prison Colony - Whistler in the Dark Theatre presents Timberlake Wertenbaker’s "Our Country’s Good"

I set sail last evening, along with the cast and crew of the good ship "Whistler in the Dark Theatre" on a voyage to late 18th Century Australia.  Our point of debarkation was the port of Charlestown in the former Massachusetts Bay Colony.  Our destination: another former British colony in the antipodes: Botany Bay and Sydney, Australia.

The occasion was a performance of the current Whistler production of "Our Country's Good," written in 1988 by Timberlake Wertenbaker.  The drama is based on actual events that took place in which the ruling Governor of Australia asked 2nd Lieutenant Ralph Clark to put on a play for the inhabitants of the young colony.  In lieu of a trained cast, the director used convicts to play the parts.

In keeping with the philosophy of the theatre company not to allow "extraneous trappings" to get in the way of the actors telling their stories, the sparse set, designed and built by Mac Young (who also plays the role of Ralph Clark) allowed the cast great flexibility.  The performance space at The Charlestown Working Theater represented very convincingly the hold of the ship, the penal colony, the backstage rehearsal area in Sydney - all while using simple nautical boxes, chests and barrels as movable furnishings.  The arrangement served to invite the audience to feel included in the action and spirit of the story.

In keeping with the Restoration Comedy style of  "the play within the play," the overall impression of the drama felt somewhat formal and occasionally slow moving.  The play that the convicts actually performed in 1789 was "The Recruiting Officer" by George Farquhar.  In last night's performance, audience members saw snippets of "the play within the play" in rehearsal.  Part of the theme of this larger work, "Our Country's Good," is the power of theatre to transform both actor and audience. (See press release below for in more in depth discussion of this issue)

The solid ensemble cast carried off very well their disparate assortment of roles and various flavors of British accents.  Several cast members played both British Marines and convicts, using simple costume additions to signal the changes.  The playwright, whose style can be somewhat dry, displayed in several places a wonderfully wry sense of humor.   Early in the play, a character makes the comment: "The convicts would like to have more forms of entertainment."  The retort is perfect, in light of Sydney's current iconic skyline: "What!  Do they expect me to build them an opera house?"  The author also has characters discussing how difficult it might be for audience members to keep straight which role a particular actor may be playing at any moment if one actor were to play more than one part.  The response is basically:  "If the audience cannot pay close attention, perhaps they should not attend the theatre."  This is a wonderfully convoluted meta-comment about the interaction between audience and performers - told within "the play within the play."  Wertenbaker has, if you will, created a delightful dramaturgical Mobius strip!

Several cast members stood out from the excellent work offered by all of the company.  Meredith Stypinkski was hauntingly effective as Liz Morden, a woman charged with theft of food and sentenced to hang.  The three actors pictured above each added their own special sauce.  Zach Eisenstat plays the role of the convict John Wisehammer, a Jew who plans to stay Australia after completing his sentence because the new colony has no history of anti-semitism.  Jesse Wood is Robert Sideway, a pickpocket turned would-be playwright.  His shtick that involves teaching the other cast members to bow after their performance of "The Recruiting Officer" is an example of physical theater and histrionics at its finest, and is worth the price of admission.  Mac Young as 2nd Lieutenant Ralph Clark anchors this production.  He commands each scene, whether attempting to direct the motley crew of convicts or soliloquizing as he writes in his journal about his Sabbath wont of kissing his wife's image 1,000 times.  His Clark is nuanced - at once pious and tempted, authoritative and tentative.

This production  will run through April 6, with the addition of 4 special performances of the original "The Recruiting Officer" running in repertory on March 22 and 30 at 8:00 PM and March 23 and April 6 at 3:00 PM. (See website link below for details.)

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Whistler in the Dark Theatre 
Timberlake Wertenbaker’s 
"Our Country’s Good"

Whistler in the Dark's production of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good transports ten actors to the antipodes. Set in the first penal colony in Australia, Wertenbaker' s 1988 play explores crime and punishment, retribution and rehabilitation and the transformative power of theatre on both the creators and the audience.

The year is 1789 and the British have settled on a recently discovered continent on the other side of the
world to solve the problem of their overcrowded prisons. Eight months by ship from England, the British
penal colony at Sydney is struggling to find its way. In a new world that resists all the rules of the Old World, a young lieutenant sets out to direct the first antipodean theatrical production. But with only two copies of the play and a (mostly illiterate) cast of convicts, the conditions are hardly ideal for the staging of George Farquhar’s Restoration comedy, The Recruiting Officer.

Whistler in the Dark is becoming known for filling out the calendar around their production with supplemental explorations that deepen the audience experience of the work through staged readings, scholarly panels and curated evenings of artist response pieces. In March they take things to another level, inviting audiences to experience both the world of Wertenbaker’s convicts finding their way through the world of Farquhar alongside a fully realized production of Farquhar’s play. Join the Whistlers for four special performances of The Recruiting Officer and enjoy this lustful, bawdy and robust exploration of the lengths we’ll go to win - both in life and love. See the shows separately or make a day out of it with the company’s marathon Saturdays where both plays will be performed.

Whistler is also thrilled to announce the full launch of their Pay-What-You-Want ticket programming.
What is Pay-What-You-Want? “It’s exactly what it sounds like,” says Artistic Director Meg Taintor, “you pay what you want for your ticket to see the show.” Built on the fundamental belief that we all need art and access to it, Whistler recognizes that there is a financial gamble to letting audiences name their own ticket price, but company hopes that the generosity of those who can support will help underwrite the cost of
making sure cost is never a barrier for someone to share in their work. “The average price of a ticket just to cover the cost of your seat is $25,” Taintor notes, “but it is our hope that those who need to will feel comfortable walking in and putting down $5 while others who can will support our work with a little extra.”

Join the Whistler’s in their month long exploration of a play, a play within a play, and the roles we play in
the lives we are born into.

Whistler in the Dark website

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