Our Country's Good

As staged by UT, this drama of convicts making theatre in colonial Australia is fascinating to watch

Shanaya Kapai as Mary Brenham and Cameron Mellin as 2nd Lt. Ralph Clark
Shanaya Kapai as Mary Brenham and Cameron Mellin as 2nd Lt. Ralph Clark
Photo courtesy of Daniel Cavazos

Our Country's Good

Oscar G. Brockett Theatre, 300 E. 23rd, UT campus, 512/477-6060
Through Oct. 27
Running time: 2 hr., 15 min.

On the surface, Timberlake Wertenbaker's Our Country's Good tells a story about a group of convicts from the British Isles who have been shipped to Australia in the late 1700s. Many of the criminals have found themselves in this awful situation after conviction for petty crimes like pickpocketing or prostitution. One of the junior officers stationed there decides to direct a group of them in a play, mostly to earn favor with the liberal-minded governor of the penal colony, who, unlike most of the officers, considers that rehabilitation might be possible, although for him it's mainly a philosophical notion. Keep in mind this is an era in which 50 lashes is considered a merciful verdict and hangings are commonplace.

By itself, the story is clever, but where it becomes intriguing is how the play explores not only the conflicts inherent in colonialism but also how community is formed. The transformation that the convict-actors and their director 2nd Lt. Ralph Clark (Cameron Mellin) experience is more complex than just the cliched poor-kids-teach-their-coach-a-valuable-lesson model. As supplies in the colony dwindle, prisoners are sentenced to die for stealing a biscuit, and nobody knows yet how to eke a living from the harsh Australian land, the convicts rehearse and learn lines. Gradually, thoughts of a future here creep in on the overwhelming longings for home.

With characters hailing from wildly different regions and classes, not to mention three different continents, this University of Texas Department of Theatre & Dance production features notable dialect work. A nod of respect to dialect coach Everett Lunning, whose behind-the-scenes work with the actors has resulted in a huge variety of dialects with few slips, if any, in performance.

In fact, the dialect work is representative of the quality of the performances overall. Our Country's Good features 20 solid actors. While one could spend words here picking at moments or details, the overall show thrives on the work of the cast under the direction of James Daniels. Scene after scene is engaging and fascinating to watch, even when events in the story are hard to take in. Smart design contributions from Mercedes O'Bannion (costumes) and James Ogden (scenery) also help the production succeed.

Our Country's Good presents enough logistical and artistic challenges to a company that productions are not terribly common. Interested audiences should seize the chance to see the play done well here in Austin, with a great cast and strong direction.

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