Presented by Whistler in the Dark Theatre
by Timberlake Wertenbaker
directed by Meg Taintor
Review by Gillian Daniels
(Charlestown) Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good is not about the importance of plays but the importance of fiction—dreams, ambitions, and fantasies—to the downtrodden. The convicts sent to the Australian penal colonies in 1788 have been dehumanized chiefly by circumstance. The play the officers have the felons put on gives them the dignity they could not find in lives led as thieves and prostitutes in England. The whole thing is an impressive meditation on how art fiercely alters perspective even if The Charlestown Working Theater’s production suffers peculiar pacing and lingering pauses.
Whistler in the Dark’s version of Our Country’s Good is a good example of genre fusion, a strange dramedy. The audience gets to choose whether or not to laugh at a man convinced a piece of paper with “North” written on it is a compass or to cry when a woman reveals her history with men. This indecision works, for the most part, and gives the audience the idea that they are watching people slide uncomfortably into new lives in a largely undiscovered continent. It also makes the story that unfolds about theater and criminal intent awkward.
Contributing to the feeling of oddness in the production is the way each actor takes on two parts, one role as an officer and the second as a convict. The changes are, for the most part, seamless, but often distracting. This doubling is more impressive in concept, showing that the convicts are products of class and bad luck, than in execution.
I feel at home rooting for the underdogs in any play, which includes convicts like Mary Brenham (Lynn Guerra), Duckling Smith (Lorna Nogueira), the hilarious Black Caeser (Jayson Rory James), and the wrongly accused John Wisehammer (Zach Eisenstat). Their removal from their native country feels unjust and downright cruel. Consequently, the passion with which some of the soldiers oppose Lieutenant Ralph Clark’s (Mac Young’s) attempts to put together a production of George Farquar’s The Recruiting Officer feel flat and evil. It’s understandable why they would be suspicious of bringing theater to felons, but the behavior of the soldiers is cartoonish and unbelievable.
Our Country’s Good, however, is most certainly based in fact. The show has the pedigree to be both educational and emotionally true. Still, it’s a story that while ripe for adaptation feels sluggish in practice. Its ideas, like freedom through art, feel much more important than the way they’re presented. While an intriguing show, an extra push really would have made it work.