Actors Play Convicts Playing Actors in Our Country's Good at UH

The setup:

This play is set in the 1780's, and is about a rehearsal for a Restoration comedy, but is not the usual backstage comedy, as the actors are convicts in Australia's first penal colony. (I hasten to add, in this 2014 production, the actors are University of Houston students, not incarcerated felons.) Our Country's Good opened in London in 1988 and ran briefly on Broadway in 1991, garnering some award nominations. One of its claims to fame is that it is based on real individuals, with the playwright, Timberlake Wertenbaker, having access to the journals of British naval officers.

The execution:

The set is largely bare, with an interesting sculptured floor, and scenic designer Frankie Teuber has added a number of ship's masts, set at angles, that evoke the maritime life, and one upright mast that serves for flogging a convict in the opening scene. There is considerable brutality in the play, and extensive comic turns. It could be described as a comedic drama, with elements of a morality play exploring the question of whether the arts can humanize corrupt human nature. As a work of theater, it rarely rises to this ambitious level, but its varied cast of characters proves useful as a training ground for actors.

Thirteen actors portray more than 20 characters, with the female actors sometimes portraying naval officers. The accents of the characters vary considerably, as do the acting styles, so the usually desirable ensemble blending is missing. But there is considerable historical interest, a strong though heavy-handed narrative, and some delightful performances to savor. Chief among them is Billy Reed as the convict Robert Sideway, who seems to have had earlier brushes with theater and learned all the bad habits that directors dread, especially a fondness for the broad gesture. The part calls for flamboyance, and Reed delivers in spades, and without winking at the audience.

Michael Thatcher as Captain Phillip, in charge of the colony, creates a complex character of wisdom, humor, courage, daring, and charm, conveyed with subtlety and quiet authority. It is all the more powerful for its understatement. David Huynh plays John Wisehammer, convict and would-be playwright, finding his inner strength, and an intellectual confidence, and demonstrating that a minor role can stand out with honest authenticity. Tom Conry plays 2nd Lieutenant Clark, the long-suffering director for the play-within-a-play, and he brings nuance and sensitivity to this major role, helping to anchor the play.

The roles of female convicts provide less scope, though they are well-handled by the actors. Sara Ornelas makes Dabby Bryant interesting though her energy and vivacity. Kiara Feliciano plays Liz Morden, who is required to be angry a lot, and then to be silent. Susie Parr as Mary Brenham captures the desired tarnished innocence. Suzelle Palacios plays Duckling Smith, required to look unhappy a lot. Smith is meant to show warmth when her lover dies, but I didn't believe in the transformation, unprepared for in the script.

The script also undermines two other performances. Crash Buist is good as the bullying Major Ross, but he also plays Ketch Freeman, the hangman, and fails to find any consistent humanity in a chameleon-like role. Andrew Garrett has the important role of Harry Brewer, a midshipman, perhaps the most complex character in the play, but a bit unbalanced - he sees apparitions, and is guilt-ridden - and Garrett's interpretation is seriously overwrought, to the point that he seems to have wandered in from another play, or perhaps SNL. Garrett is handicapped by an implausible grey wig on a youthful face, a pronounced stoop reminiscent of an exaggerated Igor, and a wildly unblinking intensity. Garrett has performed well in other roles, and I look forward to seeing him portray more sophisticated characters.

There is an aborigine who enters periodically to utter a few lines, but the play never really tackles the theme of white men usurping a continent. The aborigine's body paint is vivid, and the extensive period costumes by Jodie Daniels are detailed and excellent. Jack Young directed, and he has done a lot with the inherent strengths, finding the excitement, resentments, and complex moral code of the underclass, and bringing these to life.

The verdict:

The play re-creates the event of prisoners putting on a play in a penal colony in Australia in the1780's, providing historical interest and a chance for gifted actors to demonstrate their skills.

Our Country's Good continues through March 2, University of Houston, Quintero Theater, 133 Wortham. For information or ticketing, call 713-743-2929 or contact www.uh.theatre.com.

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