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In CCM’s “Our Country’s Good”, Redcoat is the New Black

Review by Sheldon Polonsky of Our Country’s Good: CCM Acting

For its winter Main Stage production, CCM Acting has taken on Timberlake Wertenbaker’s challenging historical dramedy, Our Country’s Good. Set in Australia’s first penal colony in the 1780’s, Wertenbaker’s play is long, complex and filled with difficult dialogue and profound thematic elements. Although I have never seen it performed, I can imagine a hundred ways to present this play badly, even with the most seasoned professional company. Luckily, CCM‘s director and young cast found a hundred ways to do it well.

Our Country’s Good opens with the arrival of convicts and the British Royal Marines in Sydney Cove, observed by a lone aborigine. The convicts–both male and female–may have escaped imprisonment or hanging back in England, but they suffer from beatings, unjust punishments, hunger and emotional debasement by the soldiers–whose life in the isolated colony and harsh conditions is a punishment of their own. The new governor, Captain Phillip (Jabari Carter) wants to promote better relations with the prisoners and improve their character, and his idea of having them put on a play is eagerly taken up by a second lieutenant, Ralph Clark (Jack Steiner). The endeavor is frustrated both by fierce opposition by many of the officers, who see the prisoners as irredeemable, and by the prisoners themselves, many of whom are illiterate and see their situation as hopeless. Led by Clark, however, and an instinctively talented convict, Mary Brenham (Madeline Page-Schmit), the company begins to forge a bond between the colonists which presages Australia’s development from penal colony to nationhood.

Our Country’s Good is a perfect ensemble piece with plenty of roles, many double-cast (as originally conceived by the playwright). Although the cast is led by Steiner’s and Page-Schmit’s relatable and humanizing performances, every player has their chance to shine, and shine they do. In this production, CCM definitely impresses with the range and depth of their students, and all 15 cast members put in stellar performances with no weak spots. I almost feel guilty singling out any for praise since everyone was so talented. Nevertheless, I was most impressed by Abby Palen, as the prisoner Liz Morden, who has the most difficult transformation from dehumanized to inspiring; Duncan Weinland, as the bookish Jew, Wisehammer, who emotionally demonstrates the power of words to overcome misfortune; and Cameron Nalley, who seamlessly morphs from the sadistic Major Ross to the gentle convict/hangman James “Ketch” Freeman and embodies them both so well one can hardly believe he is only one actor. Kudos also to Jacqueline Daaleman (Dabby Bryant) and Carter Lacava (Robert Sideway) who lighten the show with their considerable comedic talents, and James Egbert and Kayla Temshiv, who play a tormented soldier, Harry Brewer, and his conflicted mistress Duckling (Egbert also gets lots of laughs in his secondary role as the unintelligibly Scottish officer Campbell).

The biggest applause, though, should go to the director, Susan Felder, who shepherded all this talent and keeps this potentially lumbering script moving and engaging. She wisely balances the play’s humor and pathos and keeps the blocking eye-catching. All the technical aspects of the production were equally accomplished. Joshua Gallagher’s scenic design, dominated by desert-designed risers and a giant sun/moon, highlights the starkness of the landscape in a visceral way, reinforced by dramatic lighting design (Michael Ekema-Nardella) and an other-worldly sound background including didjeridoo (Zachory Ivans and Travis Byrne). Ashley Trujillo’s costume design and Samantha Kittle’s hair and make-up artistry were detailed and authentic, especially impressive given the many quick changes that the multiple roles demanded.

I would be remiss not to recognize two other aspects of the production, often overlooked. Yue Shi (Jenny), the production stage manager, had a superhuman feat keeping this all together, and the quick changes of the cast must have been quite challenging to choreograph (I still cannot get over Jabari Carter’s almost instantaneous transformation from Captain to aborigine). Finally, the dialect coaches, D’Arcy Smith and Katherine Webster, need a special shout-out. Nothing could have sunk this play (especially with young actors) quicker than ridiculous accents, but this play not only captured very believable British dialect but the nuances of different classes and locations, from Irish to Scottish to Cockney and African. CCM recently lost Rocco Dal Vera, a beloved expert in this field, and it’s wonderful to see others carrying on this legacy of fine vocal coaching.

Above all, Our Country’s Good is a show about the transformational power of theatre, and its ability to raise our sensibilities and unite people of disparate backgrounds. In her director’s notes, Susan Felder notes how theatre in the United States has become devalued at both the educational and societal level and how much that impoverishes us. In this play, one character announces pointedly, “People with little attention [and little imagination] should not go to the theatre”. Unfortunately, today’s ubiquitous media and instant gratification threaten us with losing both. But CCM‘s production of Our Country’s Good demands our own.

CCM Acting presents Our Country’s Good through Feb. 17, 2019 at Patricia Corbett Theater. Tickets are on sale now through the CCM Box Office; student discounts are available.