The evening of our national day of mourning, weary and heartsick from the misery of senseless pain and injustice, dazed by a world once again gone mad, numbed by the week's scenes of suffering and despair, I went to a play.
"Our Country's Good" was, for me, an extraordinary simulacrum of our current trauma, and the ways in which art can both enlighten the best in us and help us to transcend the intolerable worst. In this fine and passionate production, Theatre Schmeater reminds us of the power of art to redeem the human soul even in the most inhumane circumstances. It also reminded me of why I seek out these tiny basement theatres working on shoestring budgets. There be artists working here. The actor and the text, empowered by the imagination of a willing audience, can result in theatre in its purest and most thrilling form.
Playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker's story of the wretched exiles sent to the penal colonies of Australia in 1789 is deceptively simple in structure. A marine lieutenant decides to stage an inconsequential comedy (of which he has only two copies), and casts it from the convicts and their keepers. For all of them, this work is the only activity that isn't focused on someone suffering. It is also a device by which they can create a world other than the one in which they are condemned to live. The sense of being beyond the edge of the world, beyond the vision of the rest of humanity, is palpable. For the military men, this assignment is its own cruel and unusual punishment. For the prisoners, it is torment without escape, existence without meaning. One innocent woman is about to be hanged, and she shares the stage with the man who is about to hang her. Hostile officers oppose the whole project. The lieutenant clings to his play as a possible act of civilization that he can barely articulate. The cast members, with literally nothing to lose, are enraptured and ultimately redeemed by the power of their previously unexamined imaginations. The play opens.
Director Sean McEnaney uses the small stage and a minimal, rough wood set to reinforce both the intimacy and desolation of the play. The action is well-paced and clearly accented. The literate script is remarkably well-spoken, and it allows us to be simultaneously conscious of the natural quality of the speech and the poetic depth of the writing. He has melded a talented group of actors into a strong and effective ensemble, and that sub-textual theme of community gives context and coherence to the distinct individuals. Best of all, in a play that easily can become histrionic, this production remained modest and deeply personal, even when its emotions are at their most extreme.
The important achievement here is in the effective balance of the ensemble, yet individual performances deserve separate mention. MJ Sieber, as the 2nd lieutenant who initiates this project, brings great subtlety to the way he carries his conviction that it is possible to create a better world by imagining a better world. In addition, his unstated sense of value for the abandoned souls he has adopted gives dignity to the most degraded of his charges, and also conditions the transformations which are the play's real catharsis. Best exemplifying that sort of metamorphosis is the character played by Cleopatra Bertelsen. From a pathetic, beaten creature unable to raise her own head, she follows the magic trail of words to a genuine triumph, both in the identity of Mary Brenham as a person, and as an actress, as an artist. The arc of this character's journey is the play's principle theatrical argument, and it's irrefutable. Marty Mukhalian devises a woman as crude as spit, but never giving away anything of her right to be, and in that, finding a better and more satisfying way of being. Nicole DuFresne plays the woman about to be unjustly hanged with a bitter valor that clearly raises her own standards above that of the dubious justice by which she has been condemned. Mary Jane Gibson plays the complex character of Duckling with a depth and intelligence that enriches some of the play's most intimate scenes. While the men in this production are certainly good, the women are truly outstanding.
While all of the performances are commendable, some of the men have a tendency to overpower the space vocally, letting their intensity express itself in too much volume. That is, again, the danger of the play becoming too much a shout, when it is always a kind of wail. At times, I felt myself losing the play's power because dramatic conflict was being forced, rather than exposed. That was certainly the exception, rather than the rule, however.
I loved the physical production, with only the small, tri-corner raked platform of rough wood, with two imposing columns, a hint of sandy beach, and an easel to display the hand-lettered posters announcing the scenes. Director Sean McEnaney is also responsible for this excellent scenic design. Costumes, sound and lighting are all effective and proportionate. The fight choreography, by Ryan John Spickard, is outstanding. It has just the look of expert danger that makes violence convincing enough to be distressing, and controlled enough to trust.
Perhaps part of my thrill in this production was that happy circumstance of exactly the right play at the right time. But it was also in finally finding a small, independent theatre company where both the artistry and the conviction are equally apparent. Our Country's Good is a splendid piece of work, and with this production, Theatre Schmeater, whose motto is "to produce great plays simply" has clearly achieved its goal.
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