Fine performances bring passion and conviction to the gradual process by which a makeshift troupe of transported convicts reclaims humanity as they rehearse their roles in an inconsequential drawing room farce. The dregs of English society are well-represented by Blaise Messinger, Lisa Beezley, and especially by Bonita Friedericy as a sullen, unkempt thief cast as an aristocrat - her unique precursor of method acting is to imagine the rich women she's robbed.
In addition to focused steering of his well-cast ensemble, director David Rose succeeds in evoking a palpable sense of urgency - there's never any doubt how much is at stake for these people, even without the pontifications of the benevolently humanist (if oddly diffident) colony commander (Charles Howerton).
Todd Nielsen supplies the heart of the show as the lieutenant who conceives and directs the convict production, discovering more about himself than he bargained for thanks to an unexpected tryst with his comely, vulnerable star. (Michelle Duffy). Jon Palmer is a venomous presence as the major fiercely opposed to the play. And Lego Louis is memorable as a guilt-ridden sailor hopelessly enamored of one of the colony prostitutes (Melissa Hanson).
Australia in the late 1700s was as much a hellhole for jailers as for the captives, and costume designer Dana R. Woods' impossibly clean, starched uniforms on the officers are a distracting strain on realism. But it's the only technical misstep in a handsome production that paints a broad human canvas on an intimate stage.
Set in Sydney, Australia in 1788-1789, this is a story about convicts who are offered a bit of humanity and culture by participating in a production of a play. The convicts, sent to Australia by the British government for various crimes (none of which were particularly heinous), are hardened and animalistic - or so they seem to many of the officers assigned to guard them. Captain Arthur Phillip thinks otherwise, though, and encourages 2nd Lieutenant Ralph Clark to direct a production starring various prisoners.
Some of the officers are opposed, however and the Lieutenant also faces a daunting task in convincing the prisoners to work together. Additionally, a few of the prisoners/players are accused of crimes and sentenced to whippings, trials and hangings during the course of rehearsals. Still, the show goes on.
It's an unlikely premise, based on fact, as playwright Wertenbaker bases her play on Thomas Keneally's novel (The Playmaker) which is, in turn based on letters and journals of Ralph Clark and other First Fleet officers. The 1789 convict production of Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer, directed by Clark, is a matter of public record. Fact or fiction, however, this story is the stuff compelling theatre is made of, and what a company to perform it!
As Ralph Clark, Todd Nielsen is earnest, sympathetic and utterly likable. Charles Howerton is a believable tower of strength as Captain Phillip. Jon Palmer is appropriately nasty as Major Robbie Ross with Clayton Whitfield turning in a hilarious Captain Jemmy Campbell. Lego Louis is also wonderful as the tortured midshipman Harry Brewer.
Leading the convict cast is Michelle Duffy who is sweet and strong as Mary Brenham. Lisa Beezley almost steals the show as boisterous Dabby Bryant and Bonita Friedericy is intense as Liz Morden. (Credit costume designer Dana R. Woods for making these lovely ladies look terribly rough and ragged.)
John Ross Clark is good as leading-player John Arscott (as well as his role as Royal Marines officer Watkin Tench). As the comic relief character in the play-within-the-play, Blaise Messinger handles Robert Sideway with expert ease. Nick DeGruccio is handsome, eloquent and touching as John Wisehammer. In fact, there is not a weak link here, under the expert direction of David Rose, who has shaped his actors into a seamless ensemble. (Even the many and various dialects are accurate and easy to listen to.)
Program notes say that the real Ralph Clark wrote the following in his .journal, his advice to the convicts/ players after savage beatings: "I ask you to keep in mind the play, to cling to the play as the thing which will give you your spirit back." This play, this production, and this company have the spirit that enriches our lives as theatregoers, too.
*Critic's Choice -Amy
tale of an amateur theatrical troupe in a British penal colony in late
1800s Australia is infused with poignancy, lyricism and robust humor. Brought
eloquently to life under David Rose's meticulous direction, this exquisitely
mounted production combines the grandiosity of a historical epic with the
life-sized emotions of an intimate drama. The story takes place in Sydney,
Australia, beginning in 1788, where a British fleet of 11 ships lands,
harboring officers, seamen, marines and 736 convicted criminals (mostly
charged with minor infractions). As the Brits established a colony for
punishment of the prisoners (including executions) and staked their claim
on the Australian turf, the aboriginal natives became virtually extinct,
eventually replaced by a new civilization.
The events of the play revolve
around a theatrical production devised by 2nd Lt., Ralph Clark (Todd Nielsen),
who launches the project and helms the production in the hopes of rehabilitating
the prisoners. Despite fanatically severe punishments inflicted on the
prisoners and a series of tragic events, Clark and his troupe steadfastly
stick to their goal of seeing the production through. In the process, they
lay down the groundwork for a new civilization. Wertenbaker' literate parablc
explores the human capacities for compassion, respect and cooperation,
essential ingredients in'a civilized society.
The brilliant 16-member performing
ensemble is polished and technically flawless, offering on-the-mark dialects
and vibrant, full-bodied characterizations. Bradley Kaye's atmospheric
scenic design is a masterwork of stylization, accentuated by Matthew O.
O'Donnell's crisp lighting and Dana R. Woods's credible costumes. The ambiance
is also greatly aided by John Fisher's believable sound effects. This is
an uplifting and thoroughly entertaining production brimming with intelligence
and heart, another roaring triumph for the ever-amazing Colony Studio
Theatre. - Les Spindle
Los Angeles Times, Drama-Logue,