I never thought I would feel pity for a hangman. After watching Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play, “Our Country’s Good,” and the emotionally draining performance put on by Bates actors, my thinking changed. Even though the play is set in the late eighteenth century and has convicts for characters, the audience learns to identify with those supposed criminals. With clever staging and lighting, “Our Country’s Good” is a play to remember.
Walking into Gannett Theater, I immediately noticed that the stage was set up in the round, with chairs on both sides of the platform. This layout was chosen instead of the normal construction of having the stage at the front of the room and the chairs all facing towards the front of the stage.
Throughout the play, Professor and Director Sally Wood’s stage movements made it so that there were actors facing all of the audience members at the same time. Another interesting part of this set-up was that the audience could look across the stage and gage their fellow people’s reactions to certain scenes.
At first glance, the set looked mild and underdone. It was made up solely of two columns on either side of the stage with fabric tied around them in elaborate knots; an upper level was only accessible by ladders. Once the house lights dimmed and the show began, however, different light filters also added to the ambience. Blue light trickled out from the under the stage to reinforce that the actors were on a boat. Red light filters were later used to show a particularly emotional scene.
The drapery on the columns was used to create smaller spaces, like Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark’s bedroom. At the end of the scene, the fabric was then re-tied to the pillars by the actors themselves and left alone until it was needed once more. Crates of varying sizes were among the only props used during the show. The sparse stage reinforced that the point of the play was to focus on the actors and their emotional journey, not the props.
Most of the play was double cast, with actors playing more than one role. While this might seem a little confusing, the transitions the actors made between their characters were seamless and easy to follow. Gavin Schuerch ’18 played three characters throughout the production. He told me that he associates different physical movements with different characters. Schuerch said, “because I’ve so strongly associated each character with his movement, once I’m in the right physical place, the mental shift comes almost immediately. Rapidly changing characters during quick scene changes happens pretty smoothly.”
The characters portrayed in this play are immensely complex. When I asked about her role and the play at large, Allie Freed ’16 said, “It was a play that challenged me intellectually, physically, and emotionally and it really pushed me as an actor. I am so thrilled with the finished
product, and it was such an honor to inhabit a character as complex, nuanced, and thoroughly human as Liz Morden.”
What do a penal colony and 1930s era Hollywood have in common? I’ll tell you: both use performances, whether it is theater or movies, to distract from the problems at hand. The premise of Wertenbaker’s play is that Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark, portrayed by Sam Myers ’16, wants to have the convicts put on a play. He has two motives: first is to please the governor and hopefully get a promotion, and the second is to give the prisoners a reprieve from their daily lives.
This play-within-a-play construction allows the audience to further examine why they themselves came to the show. Theater allows the audience and actors to leave their problems at the door and submerse themselves in a different world, at least for a while.
As to be expected, some of the characters in this play were ones that would not normally garner sympathy and might be difficult for actors to portray to the audience. However, Mara Woollard ’16 eloquently said, “This show really helped me realize that at the core [of acting] is the basic act of empathy for your fellow actors and their characters, but mostly for your own characters, whether they were kind and loving or cruel and unforgiving.”
The chemistry between the actors was palpable to the audience. Woollard cited her favorite part of working with fellow cast members. She said, “We are all completely silent and completely engrossed in what our fellow cast members are doing on stage. I think that clearly shows the respect and love that this cast has for the show and for each other.”
If you missed “Our Country’s Good,” that’s a real shame. It was a spectacular show and set a high bar for all future performances.