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January 20, 2006

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, January 20, 2006

Acting with conviction Acting with conviction (January 20, 2006)

In Palo Alto Players' 'Our Country's Good,' an Australian penal colony puts on a show

by Terry Tang

In 1789, the first group of British convicts sent to a newly designated penal colony in Australia probably didn't expect community theater to be part of their sentence.

Supposedly for Britain's own good, criminal riffraff -- many of whom were actually non-violent offenders -- were sent by ship to New South Wales. Humiliation and abuse by the accompanying officers were regular occurrences.

But as depicted in the play "Our Country's Good," the colony's new governor orders the staging of a play in honor of the king's birthday, and the entire experience ends up lending physical and emotional salvation to the prisoners.

The growth of the convicts and some officers is at the heart of the story. Penned by English playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker in 1988, the period drama is the centerpiece in the 75th season of the Palo Alto Players. The show opens this weekend and runs until Feb. 5 at the Lucie Stern Theatre.

Wertenbaker did not have to use much imagination in portraying the cruel treatment of the convicted felons and the preposterous expectations of assimilating them in a new land. Her play is based on real events as related in journals and in the 1987 novel "The Playmaker" by Thomas Keneally, who also wrote the book "Schindler's List."

Because the felons had no money to return later or farming knowledge to survive, exiling them to Australia was tantamount to shipping someone to Mars, director Matthew Travisano said.

"It was a Herculean feat, to say the least. It started out as the most pathetic colony and was absolutely doomed to failure," he said. "There was a movement in the 1780s to literally erase criminals: 'We're not going to kill them; we'll just send them away.'... Even in the play, a character says, 'I'd be better off being hanged than here.'"

The courts' perception of the convicts as society's gutter trash contributed to their demonization by the Redcoats shepherding them. Scenes of abuse provide the play's darkest moments. During discussions with the cast, Travisano told them to act like "coiled springs," wound up taut from fear of getting hit or worse.

Despite the bleak set-up, Wertenbaker manages to infuse humorous moments into the situation. Laughs evolve naturally as tension mounts when Lt. Ralph Clark directs the convicts in a Restoration comedy of manners called "The Recruiting Officer." At the same time, other officers, worried about a prisoner mutiny, are not thrilled by the whole idea.

"It's like asking the Oakland Raiders to put on a play," Travisano said. "The big rehearsal scene is in the play is actually hysterical ... there are certainly little moments and gallows humor."

For many of the imprisoned men and women, playing refined Brits in "The Recruiting Officer" revives their own sense of self-worth. Equally important, playing make-believe for a little while provides a needed respite from real life.

"When they're at the rehearsals, it gives them 20 minutes of time to not think about being beaten, time to think about something else," Travisano said.

Some of the officers, who think of the convicts in black and white terms, undergo subtle changes as well. The willingness of a few to re-examine their assumptions about the men and women is a universal and relevant message, Travisano said.

"It's the same with homelessness," he said. "We put people we don't understand and are scared of on the periphery. The officers are so terrible because they are afraid. The play breaks through that fear and shows that we're all human beings."

Written with 22 roles, Wertenbaker's work is often double-cast. Most of the actors are entrusted with two roles and the assignments can vary from production to production. For example, Travisano cast an actress in the role of convict Meg Long and Gov. Arthur Phillip. In trying to pair players with the roles that best suited them, he had to make sure no actor got two characters who share a scene. He also hopes audiences will catch the irony of an actor's alter ego talking about another.

"The guy playing the judge plays the hangman," Travisano said. "At one point...the judge says ,'Why don't we hang that man?' referring to the hangman."

Another interesting endeavor in taking on more than one role is keeping straight the different English accents. To authentically depict both an officer and lowly convict, some of the actors have been practicing standard British and Cockney dialects. Travisano spent the first four rehearsals focusing on learning dialect and even got CD tutorials on speaking with accents.

Trying not to sound like a poor imitation of Dick Van Dyke's chimney sweeper in "Mary Poppins" has been fun for actor Christian Thomas.

"You can get stuck in that and feel like you're getting into caricatures of what British people should be like; it's not as natural," Thomas said. "I think we were all doing that in the beginning. Now we're moving toward more organic reactions to each other."

Of course, as an actor, getting to show your range with dual roles in the same show is a dream task. Keith Marshall, who got a non-speaking role as a guard when Santa Clara University produced "Our Country's Good" during his freshman year, is tackling the parts of Midshipman Harry Brewer and Capt. Jemmy Campbell. What excites him the most is layering nuances onto two characters on different emotional journeys.

"Internally, my characters are complete opposites," Marshall said. "Capt. Campbell doesn't talk in complete thoughts or sentences. He's a funny, kind of aloof character, kind of Neanderthal-ish. But Harry Brewer, on the other hand, is extremely conflicted, kind of stuck in his head and very emotional."

Putting on a production in the middle of a penal colony when people are starving and being persecuted may sound ludicrous. But, Travisano said, Wertenbaker's show demonstrates that art is perhaps needed at the most unbearable times.

"It sounds hokey, but a society without art will not survive. If it does, it will not be a nice place to be," Travisano said. "[This play] is like Pandora's box. It opens up everything but the last thing left in there is hope."


What:"Our Country's Good," a historical drama by Timberlake Wertenbaker presented by the Palo Alto Players


Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto


When: The show runs Jan. 21 through Feb. 5 with a preview performance tonight at 8 p.m. Showtimes are Wednesdays thru Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m.


Cost: Tickets are $22-$27, and $29 on opening night. There is a $3 discount for students and seniors on Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday.


Info: Call (650) 329-0891 or go to www.paplayers.org.


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