By Tamar Honig
The year is 1787. The location is the deck of a dark convict ship bound for a new penal colony in South Wales, Australia. So begins Our Country’s Good, the outstanding play put on by talented students here at BHS on November 16, 17, and 18. This play follows the story of a group of Royal Marines and convicts who put on a production of The Recruiting Officer. The governor of the new colony in Australia names Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark the director of the play. Ralph struggles to help the convicts learn their lines and become their characters, and his task proves even more difficult as one actor is sentenced to be hanged and the play must be rehearsed with half the cast in chains. Various love stories are threaded into the plot, and heated discussions of theater, punishment, criminality, and morality are strewn throughout the play. Despite the challenges encountered by Ralph and the other characters, the show must go on, and Our Country’s Good concludes as the premiere of The Recruiting Officer begins.
The students who participated in BHS’s production of Our Country’s Good would have made Timberlake Wertenbaker, the British playwright who wrote this 1988 theatrical drama, very proud. Entering the auditorium, many audience members appeared confused and surprised as they were ushered not towards the rows of seats in front of the stage, but onto the stage itself – the same one on which the actors performed mere inches away from the audience. This theatrical innovation, called a “black box theater,” gave audience members a truly up-close-and-personal experience. The close proximity allowed the play attendees a unique opportunity to witness the nuances each actor brought to his or her character and to feel as though they were right there aboard the convict ship in the midst of the action.
This BHS production expertly conveyed the themes of humor and humanity found in Our Country’s Good. Light, playful scenes contrasted dramatically with the play’s darker scenes, which revealed the brutality, oppressiveness, and degradation the convicts faced at the hands of some of the officers. The cast handled these sharp contrasts skillfully – demonstrating great understanding and control of both the comic and the serious aspects of the play. The actors portrayed the idiosyncrasies of their respective characters masterfully, filling each scene with emotion and intensity. Particular praise must be given to the accents that the actors adopted throughout the play – it became easy to believe that they were truly a bunch of British convicts and officers.
The cast and crew of Our Country’s Good deserve an other round of applause for their spectacular performance. Senior Dan Levine, who starred as Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark, reflects on the experience, saying that although the play was quite challenging, he thinks it turned out very well. “The rehearsals were very intense most of the time,” he explains. “We went outside and treated the convicts as if they were criminals, and it was very disturbing, but it really helped us get into character. We practiced every day and then sometimes on the weekends.” Not even Hurricane Sandy could thwart the efforts of the cast and crew: power or no power, during the week off from school, they rehearsed with true determination at the Rec Department. Dan explains that he is a fan of the play itself particularly “because it is mostly real.” (The play is based on a true story of convicts rehearsing a play.) He also loved conveying how his character developed as the plot unfolded. Describing his own personal growth into a truly versatile actor, Dan says: “I also liked the scenes where I get frustrated and yell. It gave me a chance to show the audience that I had that angry side of my character. I think that doing this role has shown me that I can do a serious role. I don’t need to be the slapstick comedy front man. I can be the serious, stern man. It was very interesting.”
The talented actors were not the only ones who put a tremendous amount of work into this production. Stage manager Danielle Crosswell and tech crew member Emily Feher explain the critical role that the crew plays in putting on a school play. As stage manager, Danielle must attend every rehearsal, be constantly aware of what’s happening on stage, and organize what needs to get done. Having been involved in the tech crew for every drama and musical since her freshman year, Danielle most enjoys “watching the stage starting out empty and slowly watching the set come to life, and then eventually seeing everything come together with the set, lights, sound, and acting.” In BHS’s most recent production, she also enjoyed working with a new director, Paul Kite, and becoming close with other members of the cast and crew. Emily agrees, saying she loves “being a part of a family that gets to create something for others to enjoy.” She describes “techies” as “the unsung heroes of the theater,” as they put a great deal of time into building and designing the show but are never seen. Both Emily and Danielle affirm that their work in helping to create the play was well worth it and that the show turned out extremely well.
What was truly remarkable about BHS’s most recent drama was the evident dedication and passion of the cast and crew. Danielle, Emily, and Dan all agree that their involvement in the school plays has significantly impacted their lives. Danielle asserts that the plays have taught her “how to be more outgoing and responsible because as stage manager, everything has to be very organized and people have to listen to you.” Emily reports that she has made many friends through theater, and her involvement has helped her “to open up more and be more willing to speak out and show [herself] to the world.” As for Dan, his performance in last year’s spring musical, Sugar, gave him the confidence that if he could dress like a woman, he could do anything. The very different experience of performing his role in Our Country’s Good encouraged him that he could play serious roles, as well as comic ones. Dan will pursue his love of performing next year at Ithaca College, where he plans on majoring in acting.
Playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker said of Our Country’s Good: “I don’t know how they felt. But it must have been incredible for these convicts to go out and put on a play in front of their officers… The idea is that if you can start this rehearsal, you can stop the brutality.” Perhaps the BHS student actors performing in this play within a play were not quite subject to the same brutality as the characters they portrayed. But they certainly possessed the same resilience and determination, and the performance they put on was without doubt equally as incredible as it must have been for those ship-shackled convicts all those years ago.