Strawberry Theatre Workshop’s latest is a dark look at criminology and injustice, set in an early British prison colony in Australia. It runs through February 22 at 12th Avenue Arts.
Our Country’s Good, a 1988 work by British writer Timberlake Wertenbaker, is a weird play. It’s an even weirder play to see right after Noises Off, a British farce about the behind-the-scenes action of a (particularly bad) play. But Our Country’s Good is no farce; it’s a dark, deadly serious play, with a few laugh lines thrown in, about a prison colony in Australia in the 1700s. Captors are power-drunk. Prisoners are hanged. And a few there still thirst for some sort of justice, even redemption.
In furtherance of that redemption, a few of the soldiers determine the prisoners should put on a play. The director is warned that running the play is like its own mini-colony.
And while it’s obvious at the start that the play is something of a diversion — it will keep the idle minds occupied, and presumably out of trouble, even if its transformative power is in doubt — it’s less obvious how much of a refuge the rehearsals will become. For as time wears on and supplies dwindle in the colony, it seems some of the higher-ranking guards are just looking for reasons to order hanged whomever they can.
Complicating matters, the executioner is one of the actors, alongside some of the guards’ next targets. And while he seems an unusually caring one, a good-hearted soul, it’s not exactly good for morale and chemistry in the rehearsal room.
Sound a little convoluted? It’s ever so much more. And even as the dialogue pokes fun at the audience (those who can’t follow along or pay attention, it opines, simply shouldn’t go to the theatre), it really is hard to parse things out at various points in this production by Strawberry Theatre Workshop, directed by Leah Adcock-Starr. Contributing factors: the cockney accents (delivered with varying degrees of clarity); the double- (and more) casting of everyone as both prisoner and guard, and then as play characters to boot; the blurring of what’s in the play versus what’s in the play-within-the-play. The internal theatre sequences can drag on; and the real-live-play, with a run time of two-and-a-half hours, feels even longer, particularly in the first act.
Most of the roles, through no fault of the actors, just aren’t dynamic characters. An exception throughout is Captain Arthur Phillip (Galen Joseph Osier), who seems genuine in trying to get to justice, both in fair process and substantive result; and he, unlike the others, seems hellbent on reform where it’s possible, not merely on retribution and deterrence. As an exploration of philosophical underpinnings of the criminal system, there’s some meat to be had here. But the ending is ultimately a letdown; there’s little revolutionary to be had there.
The play has some standout performances. Osier compellingly mines his character’s search; Mark Fullerton somehow pulls off a sensitive executioner; and, on the flip side of his compassion, the evil that pours out of Pilar O’Connell’s Major Robbie Ross at some key moments is palpable. The whole cast is a strong one, as is Strawberry Theatre Workshop’s norm. They need to perform like an ensemble army, and they do it in stride. The simplistic, rugged set design (by Adam Zopfi Hulse) is lovely.
At some points, the push/pull of injustice and good-vs.-evil theatricality is rejoice-worthy. At others, the play just feels much too bogged down with cargo of its own making.
Our Country’s Good runs through 2/22 at 12th Avenue Arts on Capitol Hill. Tickets $36, available here. Accessibility notes: restrooms are gendered and multi-stall, with one nearby gender-neutral, single-stall restroom available by key code. Theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible.