Monday, January 15, 2001

Kate Taylor

A play to soothe the world's savagery

Written by Timberlake Wertenbaker
Directed by Daryl Cloran
Starring Craig Erickson, Molly Jane Atkinson and Patricia Fagan
At the Tarragon Theatre Extra Space
Rating: **

Since it first appeared on the London stage in the 1980s, Our Country's Good has become something of a contemporary classic. Timberlake Wertenbaker's drama about a group of English convicts rehearsing a play in the new penal colony in Sydney, Asutralia, is a transparent allegory for the power of art. In a setting made barbarous by an unfamiliar climate, dwindling supplies and merciless British justice, the hardened men and women of the convict transport find a new humanity.

It's a simple theme illustrated with great drama, and a Toronto revival, independently produced at the Tarragon Theatre by a new company called Theatrefront, offers a grand opportunity for a big group of young actors to sink their teeth into a worthy play.

But a 22-character show full of multiple accents and dialects is also an ambitious project for an inexperienced director to handle, and the 26-year-old Daryl Cloran produces uneven results.

In 1788, after a gruelling sea voyage, the first British convict transport arrived in Australia and established a community of soldiers and criminals, where theft from the rations was punished with hanging and female transportees would prostitute themselves for an extra biscuit. In this harsh setting, the shy and genteel Lieutenant Clark (Craig Erickson) persuades the enlightened governor Philip (Xuan Fraser) that the convicts can act in a play.

Despite interference from the brutal Major Ross (Andrew Pifko), Clark manages to recruit a cast that includes the viciously toughened Liz Morden (Patricia Fagan), the raucous and disruptive Dabby Bryant (Araxi Arslanian) and the much-despised community hangman, Ketch Freeman (Damien Atkins). Only the theatrical pickpocket Robert Sideway (Shane Carty) shows any ability, but Clark perseveres and finds himself falling in love with his star, the downtrodden young Mary Brenham (Molly Jane Atkinson).

The cast captures these types with firmness, offering both humour and pathos in their delivery, but details often go missing.

For example, Fagan's rendition of Liz Morden is highly effective in establishing a frighteningly vicious personality, but when it comes time for a crucial monologue explaining the circumstances of her life, the actress cannot manage a clear enough delivery of the character's thick backstreet dialect to make her baroque vocabulary comprehensible. Similarly, Pifko exudes powerful menace as Major Ross but loses many of his lines to a bad Scottish accent. Meanwhile, Erickson and Atkinson tend to play their more romantic roles on single notes — his of red-faced discomfort; hers of bashful sweetness — that become less and less interesting.

Physically, Cloran has given the action a strong thrust, but he has troubles giving crucial moments the dramatic emphasis they require. Liz Morden's conviction for a theft she didn't commit is the play's chief crisis, but Cloran's staging doesn't underline it sufficiently, and the plot details surrounding her arrest remain very confusing. Similarly, the point of a subplot about the jealousy-ridden affair between Midshipman Harry Brewer (played with a good mix of gentleness and demonic possession by Aaron Franks) and his mistress Duckling Smith (Danielle Wilson) remains murky.

What does emerge powerfully, whatever this production's inadequacies, is the playwright's belief in the civilizing influence of theatre.

Until Jan. 28. For information call: 416-531-1827

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Created: January 18, 2001
Last modified: January 21, 2001
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