Timberlake Wertenbaker’s "Our Country’s Good" directed by Burce Burgun at the IU Theatre comes from Australia, but it’s a long ways from "Waltzing Mathilda."
In 1789, England cleared out its prisons by instituting transportation. Eight hundred male and female convicts of various descriptions with a contingent of soldiers and marines were shipped to Australia to establish a colony.
Conditions were brutal. It was a rough unforgiving and inhospitable country. Food was short. The troops were bitter at becoming jailors and still angry over the losing battle for the colonies in America. Prisoners bartered scraps of food or clothing, an occasional smuggled trinket and their bodies.
In the midst of this privation and squalor, a Rousseau spouting Governor played by Lance Stacy, proposes that the convicts be elevated by putting on a dramatic entertainment, a play. There are vigorous objection from the troop’s commander, the overwhelmingly Scots, Major Ross. But the Governor appoints the most junior lieutenant, Ralph Clark, to direct a production of George Farquhar’s comedy "The Recruiting Officer."
And my, what a daunting directing job he has. Imagine a cast of various felons ranging from prostitutes through petty thieves and on to strong armed robbers. Many of them have to have their parts read to them. It’s a group whose most accomplished member’s theatrical expeience comes from picking the pockets of theatre crowds.
"Our Country’s Good" is a complicated theatrical experience. There are twenty-two short scenes. They range from musing soliloquies, through comic moments, a dramatized class lesson on the reality and meaning of theatre, and on to some of the most intense and involving scenes that you’re likely to see.
With the exception of Jason Marr playing the alternately diffident and assertive lieutenant director, almost everyone plays at least one of the officers and one of the convicts. Especially outstanding was Scot Purkeypile as a brutal laconic captain, and a maddened lieutenant pursued by visions of the dead. John Armstrong was a thoughtful captain and a most sympathetic cameleon as the pickpocket thespian. Rachel Crouch was a sympathetic convict and play heroine. Kevin Anderson was amazingly transformed in the dual roles of the harsh Scots Major and the whimpering convict hangman.
Monday night the Wells-Metz Theatre seemed to swallow dialogue, especially the women’s voices. I’d suggest first or second row seats because Wertenbaker’s words are well worth hearing.
"Our Country’s Good" plays each evening this week through Saturday in the Wells-Metz Theatre of IU’s Lee Norvelle Theatre and Drama Center.