|Mac Young is puzzled by Jesse Wood's theatrics in Our Country's Good. Photo: Christopher McKenzie|
As readers of the Hub Review know by now, Boston's fringe is where the intellectual action is - indeed, the brain waves emanating from our various theatres are all but inversely proportional to their supposed status. At the top of the heap, Harvard's A.R.T. has long been brain-dead (before you write in, I know, The Glass Menagerie wasn't bad - hooray!), and the Huntington, despite a sterling commitment to lighter classics, has been edging away from any highbrow heavy lifting as well. Meanwhile, after a strong start, even ArtsEmerson is getting a little light in the loafers these days. Face it, the local stage is steadily being dumbed down to the level of PBS (and frankly, most local critics are only too happy to see that happen; big ideas make them a little nervous, too).
There are a few candles in this encroaching dark - or at least there's Whistler in the Dark, which reliably programs challenging fare with a touchingly earnest faith in the Boston audience. And perhaps indeed not all hope is lost, for the Whistlers have slowly built a solid base of support, despite their devotion to the likes of Caryl Churchill and Ovid. (They've certainly built a base among the actors of the fringe; the cast of their current production, Timberlake Wertenbaker's Our Country's Good - through April 6 at the Charlestown Working Theater - is stacked with local performers who remind you that an Equity card doesn't always count for that much artistically.)
Still, despite several galvanizing moments, I felt that the Whistlers stumbled slightly with Country, perhaps because their own post-modernist methods blinded them to what in the end ties the play together. Wertenbaker's breakout hit from 1988 is based on an evocative historical fact: improbably, when the British founded Australia as a penal colony, the first prison ships also seeded the Land Down Under with the acting bug. For the jailers and their convicts took it upon themselves to stage a production of George Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer for their own entertainment; and in this poignant episode the playwright finds much to ponder about the manner in which civilization (and even romance) take root in a harsh climate.
Indeed, the civilizing power of the stage is openly debated by this Country's characters (most of them based on historical figures) - and that includes the officers as well the convicts; they're all almost as skeptical of the value of the theatre as today's governors of Harvard. Artistic director Meg Taintor, and the Whistlers in general, do well by these disputes - after all, they've long specialized in the dry barbarism of the Greeks and Howard Barker - and they likewise crisply conjure the cruelties of the British penal code (some actors must rehearse the frothy Recruiting Officer while facing new punishments and charges - even capital charges).
But the episodic nature of Wertenbaker's text seems to throw Taintor and her cast ever so slightly. Or perhaps their efforts to simultaneously mount The Recruiting Officer itself in rep with Country proved an exhausting challenge. Or perhaps they've just become a little too used to the formal questioning of the likes of Caryl Churchill, who seems to undermine her own premises with each passing scene. Timberlake Wertenbaker is different, however; the epic-theatre episodes of Our Country's Good are built on a stable, even sturdy, melodramatic structure. But several actors, despite convincing accent work and a calm conviction within each scene, seem unable to connect the various dots of their characters' actions into convincing arcs - and thus the overall impact of The Recruiting Officer on its players and audience never quite makes theatrical landfall.
Farquhar's farce, of course, has its own unexpected resonances (it's funny how often history works this way!), in that it's a roundelay of disguised courtship pirouetting on the edge of military indenture. But the Whistlers have trouble mining the veins of feeling this romance suggests; indeed, mainstay Mac Young looks merely perplexed at the increasing commitment of the officer he plays (Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark, an actual person) to the production he himself has proposed - even though it's obvious that Farquhar's play sparked his own longing for a lost love (and indeed eventually delivers a new romance into his arms). Likewise Chris Larson, as Clark's nemesis, Major Robbie Rose (again a historical figure) can't seem to limn much in his character's punitive persona. Of course such people are often a mystery - who knows what drives Justice Scalia? - yet their intrinsic vengefulness is always a potent political force; here Wertenbaker conjures in these two British officers an epochal social showdown, but the Whistlers don't seem to realize this.
The performances are generally stronger among the convicts (intriguingly, each member of the cast plays two parts, one in each stratum of Australia's penal society). Here the standouts are the reliable Zach Eisenstat and Lynn Guerra, who worked together to such memorable effect in The Play About the Baby, and who bring a subtlety and surprising charm to their parts here. Not far behind is Jesse Wood - late of Heart & Dagger - who brings not only his usual confident sex appeal but also a remarkable technical command to the role of convicted thief Robert Sideway, who was so moved by The Recruiting Officer that he founded the first theatre in Australia upon his release. Wood's technique is pretty impeccable (and, like Eisenstat, he nails a complex accent - the production's dialogue coach was Liz Hayes, hire her) but I felt he too missed the role's passionate dimension; after all, Mr. Sideway had a touch of the poet in his soul that apparently elbowed aside the Artful Dodger once it had been awakened by the theatre.
Elsewhere Alejandro Simoes threw himself into the tormented role of a haunted hangman, while Lorne Nogueira (whom we see far too rarely on stage) this time, oddly enough, underplayed things a little too much as Simoes' love interest. But then it's that kind of production - slight miscalculations and a few missteps undercut what at other times is an engrossing evening. In the end, the Whistlers put over Wertenbaker's thesis - just without quite all the power her play deserves.