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CSC “A Winter’s Tale” Will Thaw Audience’s Hearts

Review by Jenifer Moore of ”A Winter’s Tale”: Cincinnati   Shakespeare   Company

It’s been quite some time since I’ve attended a performance of a Shakespeare play (all on my own account and not the playwright’s beautiful works), and I did not know what to expect on the opening night of The Cincinnati Shakespeare Theatre’s interpretation of “The Winter’s Tale”. While I am familiar with Shakespeare’s other famous works (Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, etc), I’ve never read or seen this one in action. However, from the moment the lights went down in the intimate setting, I was in a spell. Directed by Christopher Luscombe, the play is a storied tale of family ties filled with romance, jealousy, love and redemption. King Leontes of Sicilia, believing that his pregnant wife has been unfaithful, becomes enraged, jailing her. He eventually banishes his newborn from his world into the wilderness. It is only then after the truth is revealed, that Leontes realizes that he’s made a grave mistake and is full of remorse. However, a turbulent course of action has been set with consequences for years to come.

The first half of the play is poignant and emotionally heavy with monologues served from the heart by the company’s amazing cast. The cast beautifully balances the dramedy of the play delivering heart-wrenching monologues in the beginning. Brent Vinstrup is great in his role as King Leontes, offering drama and theatrics due to the supposed betrayal by Hermione, while in contrast, Kelly Mengelkoch is graceful and demure in her performance as the falsely accused wife.

Shannon Mooreis to be applauded for her visionary set that matches the overall tone of the play. Tall, barren trees take up the majority of the stage connecting with the symbolism of the play of how empty one’s life can become in the absence of family.

The play takes somewhat of a dramatic turn in the second act, in a good way, offering comedic quips and upbeat melodies that give levity and relief to the audience. Billy Chace owns the second act as Autolycus. He moves with a whimsical and joyful air giving punch lines at the best moments and pulling laughter out of attendees. Also, as mentioned before, the singing and dancing is somewhat of a uncanny metaphor for the entire play for me. I liken it to the scripture in Psalms which says “weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.” Leontes has weeped for many nights due to his own actions. However, after sixteen years of living with remorse he learns a powerful lesson about redemption, thus restoring joy to his life. “The Winter’s Tale” teaches the important lesson the everyone deserves a second chance, as long as the atone for their mistakes.

While winter can be seen as cold and dreary, Cincinnati Shakespeare brings a bit of warmth and sun to audiences of all ages with “The Winter’s Tale”. The play is part of the Cincinnati Shakespeare Theatre Company’s 25th Anniversary season and will run until March 23, 2019. Tickets can be purchased online, by calling the Box Office at (513) 381-2273 ext. 1 or in person seven days a week noon – 5pm at The Otto M. Buddig Theater 1195 Elm Street Cincinnati, OH 45202.

“Around the World in 80 Days” is Exciting, Energetic and Epic


Review by Liz Eichler of “Around the World in 80 Days”: Human Race Theatre

Human Race Theatre has built a reputation for delighting audiences by showcasing amazing talent in Dayton. “Around the World in 80 Days” will thrill you with the range, flexibility, charm and sheer energy of the five exceptional actors who share this epic story of how a wealthy, exacting, but mysterious bachelor, Phileas Fogg, accepts a bet from his club members to circumnavigate the world in 80 days or less—in 1872. The play follows that journey and its heroic, harrowing and hilarious complications from London to far-away lands and the race to win that bet. 

The show features an ensemble with great skill and ability to switch between multiple roles in an instant. Two performers stand out – Jake Lockwood and Cincinnati native Patrick Earl Phillips. They add memorable quirks to the small roles (passport stampers, bellhops and more) and conquer their larger roles with great physical and vocal alacrity. Lovelee Carroll and Darlene Spencer are new to the area but are also tremendously versatile comics and performers. Jared Joplin, primarily as Fogg, is the strong center to this universe of unique and cartoony exotic characters.

Director Joe Deer didn’t drop a stich as he knitted together the ensemble and choreography.  The whole theatre is used for entrances and exits.  Sometimes the performers run offstage as one character and in two seconds he or she will be completely transformed as another.  When those transitions happen on-stage it is a treat. One of the best transformations is when an “elephant” appears on-stage…watch for it! 

The set (Dick Block) evokes a simple yet sturdy steam punk train station, as well as many other locales, decorated with a multitude of period props (Heather Powell).  Connecting us between locations are clever projections (John Riechers) and wonderful lighting and effects (John Rensel). The actors move in beautiful clothing (Cat Schmeal-Swope) that is both perfectly tailored and accommodating their range of acrobatics and quick changes. 

Take a train, ship or pachyderm, but run to see this show for the range of interesting characters from around the world. “Around the World” plays through March 17.  Tickets for your next date night or family night can be purchased through my.ticketcenterstage.com or @HumanRaceTheatre. 

“Winter” is Coming at Cincinnati Shakespeare!

Review by Willie Caldwell of A Winter’s Tale: Cincinnati Shakespeare Company

Continuing its 25th season, Cincinnati Shakespeare takes on A Winter’s Tale full force!

Often described as one of Shakespeare’s problem plays, A Winter’s Tale feels like two plays in one. Part of the first folio, it is easy to see elements of Shakespeare’s later more predominant works woven throughout A Winter’s Tale. Part tragedy, part comedy, and part romance play, A Winter’s Tale is a rollercoaster of emotions, characters, and storylines.

Act I unfolds as a dark, psychological drama about jealousy, the abuse of power, and toxic masculinity. At the onset, we learn that King Leontes suspects his wife Hermine of having an affair with his longtime friend King Polixenes. After a series of baseless accusations, King Leontes orders Camillo, a Sicilian Lord, to poison Polixenes who instead flees to his home country of Bohemia. Enraged at Polixenes’ escape, Leontes resorts to publicly accuse his wife of having an extramarital affair and throws her in the dungeons. To make matters worse, Hemione gives birth to a child that is now deemed illegitimate. 

Searching for answers, King Leontes seeks out the Oracle to ascertain the truth about Hermione and her newborn daughter.The Oracle informs the King that Hermione and Polixenes are innocent and the newborn infant is indeed his child. Refusing to believe the Oracle, Leontes ignores the truth, leading to dire consequences. As the events of Act I draw to a close, we learn that Leontes’ only son and heir, Mamillius, has died of a wasting sickness and Hermione has died of a broken heart leaving Leontes bitter, broken, and alone. 

If it all sounds a bit convoluted, that is because it is, but Act I is where Cincy Shakes production truly shines. Brent Vimtrup as Leontes delivers a powerful performance as the tyrant king who is driven mad by jealousy. Vimtrup is beautifully balanced by Kelly Mengelkoch as the broken and defeated Hermione. The public accusation scenes are particularly gut-wrenching and hard to watch while simultaneously being impossible to turn away from. Leslie Brott absolutely commands the stage as the noblewoman Paulina who sets the events in motion that lead to the second act. Act I is visceral, dark, and eerily similar to the real-life themes playing out in our current political landscape in the #MeToo era.

In contrast, Act II feels like a completely different play. Sixteen years have passed and the baby is now a full-grown woman by the name of Perdita. We are introduced to the warm and colorful kingdom of Bohemia, which, true to its name, includes all the singing, dancing, and daisy chains one could hope for. Perdita is in love with Florizel who happens to be Polixenes’ only son and heir. Act II focuses on the budding relationship between the two lovers and throws in a myriad of subplots and additional characters ultimately leading to the discovery that Perdita is the long-lost daughter of King Leontes who has been in mourning for the past 16 years. 

Where Act I represents winter, Act II gives the illusion of winter melting into spring. Billy Chace stands out in the role of Autolycus, a bumbling roguish peddler and pickpocket. Our lovers, played by Courtney Lucien and Crystian Wiltshire, swoon deeply for one another with all the innocence of young requited love. The ensemble is rounded out by a delightful trio of minstrels playing a guitar, mandolin, and fiddle live on stage. While the pacing of the second act is quicker, there is quite a bit of ground to cover and a number of loose ends to tie up which at times can be a bit confusing for the audience. This has more to do with Shakespeare’s early writing than Cincy Shakes’ adaptation. Despite being one of the Bard’s “problem plays,” The production ends on a high note reminding theater goers that after winter, spring must come.

Cincy Shakes is clearly settling into their new home and making beautiful use of the recently constructed Otto M. Budig Theatre. The production is directed by Cincinnati native, Christopher Luscombe, who works as an associate artist for the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company.  Overall, the production design is sleek and simple. Towering columns give way to connecting arches which feel hard as stone in Act I but are made to feel like trees swaying gently in the breeze during Act II. Shannon Moore’s scenic design does a terrific job of balancing Act I and Act II with the help of colorful textures, gobos, and lighting design by S. Watson. 

A Winter’s Tale runs March 1-23. Tickets can be purchased online by visiting www.cincyshakes.com or by calling the box office at 513-381-2273.

Back to the Past: A Review of Know Theatre’s “Always Plenty of Light at the Starlight All-Night Diner”

Review by Alan Jozwiak of Always Plenty of Light at the Starlight All-Night Diner: Know Theatre

Traveling back in time is a perennially favorite wish of humankind. 

Like Doc Brown and Marty McFly in Back to the Future, we have an itch to go back in time to see if we can set things right.  Whether it’s Marty’s dilemma to get his parents together or to stop a major incident from occurring (like the Titanic or JKF Assassination), human beings want do-overs.

In the world premiere time travel fantasy offered by Know Theatre, Always Plenty of Light at the Starlight All-Night Diner by Darcy Parker Bruce, the need to back to the past becomes a vehicle for discovery and self-exploration.  Always Plenty of Light explores what happens when Dr. Franklin Moxie (Michael Burnham) and his crack assistant Danni (Maggie Cramer) create their own version of a time traveling DeLorean by taking the physical Starlight All-night Diner out of its current time and moving it back into the deep past.

Without giving away too many spoilers, complications ensue with the two servers at the diner—Sam (Lormarev Jones) and Jessa (Leah Strasser)—join Dr. Moxie along on his time travel safari.

Director Alice Flanders creates a taut 75 minute dramedy that nicely balanced the absurdities found within the play with the real emotions and relationships of the characters.  This is a play that could easily become completely absurd and Flanders does a great job for highlighting some of the touching moments with the cast of characters while still keeping the absurdity.

As the pregnant Jessa, Leah Strasser is a standout.  She deftly explores the terrain of Jessa’s character, moving effortlessly from pathos to comedy, making every action believable.  Strasser also has wonderful sense of physicality which added to the humor of many scenes.  She was counterbalanced by Lormarev Jones, who played the role of Sam. Jones provides the emotional grounding for the play.  Her character’s concern for Jessa is both touching and moving, as well as the lengths she goes to protect Jessa and her baby. 

Michael Burnham as Dr. Franklin Moxie played the mad scientist to perfection.  Balancing his science obsessed character were some touching moments with his assistant Danni, revealing his basic humanity amidst absurdity.  In the performance I saw, Burnham had a very good recovery after accidentally falling out of a position he was holding—the mark of a consummate professional.

Maggie Cramer as Dani had a number of strong moments of emotional connection where her character could sparkle and shine.  Cramer delivers a stand out performance when she is on the cell phone with her parents, beautifully articulating all the contrary emotions faced by her character.

Kudos also need to go to Scenic and Lighting Designer Andrew J. Hungerford who created a version of the Starlight All-Night Diner that was both functional and aesthetically pleasing.  The set captured the essence of the diner and was the perfect backdrop for the action on stage.  Know has a history of creating strong sets and this set was one of their better efforts.

In closing, this production of Always Plenty of Light at the Starlight All-Night Diner does a great job at exploring the feelings and relationships of its characters.  The play itself left me wanting a second act to see what happens to these characters, but the production itself was satisfying. 

Always Plenty of Light at the Starlight All-Night Diner runs February 22 to March 16, 2019, with performances running Wednesday through Saturdays at 8 pm, with 3 pm Sunday matinees.  For more information on this show, visit Know Theatre’s website at https://knowtheatre.com/season-21/starlight/.

Know Theater’s “Always Plenty of Light at the Starlight All Night Diner” is a Wonderfully Weird and Wild Ride

Review by Willie Caldwell of Always Plenty of Light at the Starlight All Night Diner: Know Theatre

The world premiere play, Always Plenty of Light at the Starlight All Night Dinner, by Darcy Parker Bruce, is ultimately a story about relationships and overcoming insurmountable odds in the name of love. When a giant asteroid threatens earth, a cast of quirky characters finds themselves holding up at the Starlight All Night Diner. As the realization of Armageddon sets in, the gang hatches a plan to avoid annihilation by traveling back in time through the use of a coffee pot time machine. With the space-time continuum in flux, we learn that love may be the only thing holding our heroes together and loss may drive them apart.

The play feels like a cross between Back to the Future and Lost in Space with a plot line oddly similar to Waitress. While this may sound like a weird hodge-podge of cultural references, the play is a testament to the explorational nature of the Know Theatre and their commitment to producing new work. The play is weird and delightful, with a decent balance between humor and existential philosophy. Audiences will laugh, cry, and question their existence. 

Bruce’s writing is strong on the humor but also allows for meaningful moments to be created between characters as the play progresses. Plot-wise, this creates a fairly predictable rotational formula where characters are paired off in various combinations. Bruce also creates extended private moments with characters one-on-one as a strategy for character development but in a few cases, solo scenes felt a bit long and a little over paced. As though asteroids, time travel, and the subsequent love story wasn’t enough, Bruce throws in LGBTQ themes including coming out, bisexuality, and lesbian relationships. Given our three female characters are all of the feminine persuasion, we’re left to wonder what was Dr. Moxie thinking when he turned on the time machine in the first place. As a theatre goer, it’s refreshing to see a story featuring a same-sex, interracial relationship and while the LGBTQ themes were present throughout, it didn’t feel heavy handed or overplayed. More so, it’s a queer story that allows other themes to take center stage. 

Lormarev Jones delivers an engaging performance as Sam, Starlight’s resident maintenance worker and do-gooder. Sam is deeply in love with Jessica, played by Leah Strasser, Starlight’s overworked, and very pregnant, waitress who dreams of a better life. Jones and Strasser create strong chemistry on stage and play well off one another. The pair take an emotional ride as the play progresses which is heightened by the discovery of a betrayal in the latter half of the play.

Michael Burnham, as Dr. Moxie, plays an exuberant astrophysicist who tries to save the group from certain death by hatching a plan to travel through time. His plan goes slightly awry when the group travels more than 65 million years and lands in the Late Cretaceous Period. Burnham’s enthusiastic performance is well matched by Maggie Cramer who delivers a youthful and exciting performance as Danni, an overachieving grad student working with Dr. Moxie. Their relationship is a bit strange and blurs the line between paternal and romantic undertones. Despite this, the pair are delightfully comedic and at times a bit silly. Given our premise includes a coffee pot time machine, a bit of silliness is to be expected which makes the meaningful moments all the more unexpected.

The play is complimented by a simple yet effective set with scenic and lighting design by Andrew Hungerford. The set feels reminiscent of something from Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy with the main focal point being a stunning and multifaceted lighting fixture suspended over the stage. Hungerford’s set is well matched by sound and video by Douglas Borntrager which adds depth, texture, and immersive soundscapes. Watching our heroes travel through a time wormhole and reach an event horizon is a particularly nice touch.

Directed by Alice Flanders, the play runs 75 minutes without an intermission. Given the hip and casual atmosphere of the Know, audience members should take advantage of the bar and hang out both pre and post show for a full experience. Since Know is Cincinnati’s premier theatrical playground, there is no shortage of things to do and see as part of their late night and downstairs programming.  

At its heart, Starlight All Night is fundamentally about love, loss, and relationships. How they are weird, quirky, and full of paradox. To Sam’s point, we’re all just star stuff, and star stuff is part of something bigger. If you’re looking for something fun and funky with a nice balance of substance, check out Always Plenty of Light at the Starlight All Night Dinner at the Know Theater. 

For more information on the Know Theatre, or to purchase tickets, visit www.knowtheatre.com

Outside It Is Winter, But in NKU’s Corbett Theatre, “Cabaret” is So Hot, *woo*!

Review by Jack Crumley of Cabaret: NKU Theatre

An ice storm and polar vortex hit the Cincinnati area two weeks ago. Temperatures were around 60 last week. Now it’s cold again, but Northern Kentucky University’s production of Cabaret is a Valentine that’ll keep audiences warm for the next few days.

Cabaret tells the story of a nightclub in 1931 Berlin, Germany, just as the Nazis are rising to power. Specifically, it’s about Cliff Bradshaw, an American writer, and Sally Bowles, an English performer who works at the Kit Kat Klub. Sally inserts herself into Cliff’s life, and they start to fall in love as the world around them starts to fall apart. There’s also a secondary plot involving Cliff’s elderly landlady, Fraulein Schneider, and her blossoming romance with an elderly tenant in the building, Herr Schultz.

Director Brian Robertson’s production tells the story presentationally. The Emcee, played by the inimitable Faustina Gorham (more on her in a bit), is resurrecting the run-down club in her memory, and it’s as if the audience is watching dancing girls and guys perform the musical at the club. Everyone on stage is scantily clad, at best, all the time. The guy playing Cliff (Mattison Sullivan) wears a vest and tie over his underwear. Herr Schultz (Matthew Nassida) is a man in spectacles and a sportcoat up top, and leggings straight out of The Rocky Horror Picture Show from the waist down. The woman playing the aging Fraulein Schneider (Sarah Hack) puts on a flower-print dress over her top and skirt, hunches over a bit, and she’s in character. When she’s not in character, she and the other performers are having a drink or lounging around on the outskirts of the stage. It makes for an incredibly interesting show, visually. As the main action is going on, you can take in subtle interactions between members of the cast off to the side. It sounds distracting, but for me, it gave the show an added level of depth. These are people playing characters playing characters. In between scenes that tell the main story, there are cabaret-style musical numbers that relate to the plot.

Even though that plot is about Cliff and Sally, it’s the Emcee who steals the show. Faustina Gorham’s performance is arresting. It’s infused with a Miley Cyrus-style sexuality and exuberance. Every single gesture she makes or syllable she sings is planned and purposeful. She’s dancing with the girls, working the crowd with classic songs like “Wilkommen,” or positioning herself on stage to be just outside the action, but all still very active. As much as Joel Grey defined the role in the 1972 Bob Fosse film, having a woman like Gorham play the part fits so perfectly with the queer and gender-bending undertones of the story, it’s hard for me to imagine a man playing the Emcee from now on. She’s the one you’ll be talking about after the show.

My praise of Gorham should in no way indicate that the rest of the cast is lacking. This entire group of actors is outstanding. Their voices all blend really nicely, and they’re all able to act as they sing, an ability that sometimes gets glossed over in musicals. And again, we’re talking double-duty: They’re playing cabaret performers who are playing musical characters. Sullivan’s Cliff has a quiet intensity about him that flares up. Hack’s Schneider is so believable as an older woman until Hack steps out of the main area, sheds the dress, and goes back to being a dancer. Her chemistry with Nassida’s Schultz when they sing “Married” is truly touching.

Makenzie Ruff plays Sally, the one-time featured player at the Kit Kat Klub who’s tossed out when her relationship with the club’s owner fizzles. Ruff’s voice is spectacular. Like Gorham, she’s a performer who’s often at the heart of the action, leading the company with songs like “Don’t Tell Mama” and the classic “Mein Herr.” But Ruff really shines in the more introspective moments. She absolutely brought the house down on Saturday night when she sang “Maybe This Time,” and her performance of “Cabaret” near the end carries the weight of this frivolous-now-serious story. It’s fitting that Ruff and Gorham share the final bow.

These actors who sing are also dancing during this show. Natalie Bellamy and DJ Bruegge’s choreography is at times, sweeping. From the chair gymnastics in “Mein Herr” to the living cuckoo clock-like dancing number to kick off Act II, this cast is put through some paces. Also, they’re playing these characters and singing these songs and dancing these steps in various states of undress. What costume designer Ronnie Chamberlain lacks in actual fabric is more than made up for in creativity. Stockings, lacy bodysuits, football shoulder pads, corsets, leather pants, and heels are all featured. It’s really impressive work that showcases each character’s personality.

Supporting these superlative performances is an orchestra that never overpowers the singers, conducted by Jamey Strawn. The reeds, brass, strings, and drums didn’t hit a sour note and played with the same sense of fun that the cast is showcasing. They played from the back of the stage, and it’s one more testament to the strength of this production that there were no issues between the orchestra and the actors, even with no one in front to direct.

The only issue I had was with the sound. One of the microphones had a bad wire or was rubbing against something, and that was distracting for much of Act I. To the credit of the cast (again), that microphone issue didn’t seem to affect their performances at all, however. The problem was eventually fixed, and I doubt it will be an issue again.

Cabaret tells a powerful, intense story that’s masked in lighthearted gaiety. This production at NKU handles the material in a deft, talented, and unique way. This is a mature show–in a sense that goes beyond offensive language or nudity–that’s being presented by a brilliant group of people. It is not to be missed.

Cabaret plays Wednesday to Sunday at the Corbett Theatre on the campus of Northern Kentucky University through February 24. For tickets, call 859-572-5464 or visit theatre.NKU.edu

In CCM’s “Our Country’s Good”, a Dream Has Lost Its Way

Review by Alan Jozwiak of Our Country’s Good: CCM Acting

This is a dream which has lost its way. Best to leave it alone.

These lines, spoken by an Australian Aborigine (Jabari Carter) on seeing the arrival of the first British ship coming to the shores of Australia, beautifully sums up the helplessness and hopefulness that is contained within Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play about the founding of Australia, Our Country’s Good.

Our Country’s Good is the winter Mainstage offering of CCM Acting and the play tells what happens when a group of convicts, forced to found Australia’s first penal colony, are invited to put on a staged production of George Farquhar’s comedy The Recruiting Officer. Added into the mix of events are objections of the play by several of the officers, dwindling resources of food, in-fighting by different convicts, and the imprisonment of some of them who are accused of aiding in the escape of their fellow prisoners.

The drama off the stage is just as great as the convicts put on the stage.

Kudos should go to director Susan Felder. She has a unique genius of clarifying relationships and highlighting character story arcs. In Our Country’s Good, Felder skillfully works with her actors to construct a play that effectively moves swiftly from scene to scene while juggling twenty-plus characters without confusion. This is a pretty mean feat since this is the only production of this play that I’ve seen that has been able to do this.

The secret to Felder’s success is that she holds in equal measure the horror of the convict’s situation while keeping the lightness and levity also found within the play. Our Country’s Good has plenty of laugh lines and Felder is able to make the humor sparkle and shine throughout.

This is a play where practically the entire cast delivered strong performances, so it is going to be hard to single out for discussion all the strengths of the actors. Since this is an academic production, I will focus my comments on some of the graduating seniors who were in the cast.

James Egbert did an outstanding job with the role of Harry Brewer, the British midshipman who saves a young woman Duckling (Kayla Temshiv) from the gallows by adding her to the list of those bound for Australia. Egbert delivers a believable performance and is able to deliver the wide range of emotions that Harry Brewer faces over the course of the play.

Carter LaCava was incredibly funny as Robert Sideway, the London pickpocket whose pretentiousness and over-the-top pomposity was delightful to watch. I particularly enjoyed his exaggerated mannerisms and exalted airs while rehearsing. They were the perfect fit for the character.

Madeleine Page-Schmit was great as the convict Mary Brenham. Page-Schmit walked a nice line falling between subdued innocence and sassy worldliness. She also had some wonderful laugh lines and solid moments of pathos throughout the play.

She worked well with her fellow convict and friend Dabby Bryant, played by Jacqueline Daaleman. Daaleman did a wondrous job with Dabby, making the character into a sassy forward woman who was willing to look out for her friend Mary Brenham as she is willing to fight for women she distrusts, like Liz Morden, played brilliantly by Abby Palen.

In the final analysis, this was a strong production that delivers some wonderful performances, along with plenty of laughs, thoughtful commentary on theatre and life, and life-and-death drama. It forced me to re-evaluate this play and I think it should be a must-see for the serious theatre fan. For more information on this and other CCM performances, go to the CCM website for the show for more information: https://CCM.uc.edu/.

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.