The play opens on a convict ship bound for Australia in 1788, and continues at one of the penal colonies at Botany Bay, the first non-Aboriginal colony in Australia. These were the days in England when people could be executed for stealing a chicken - or sent to Australia, if they were lucky. As the ragged men and woman convicts roll around below decks, at the start of their eight-month voyage, we heard the creaking of the ship and the sound of the sea, and it was soon clear that this theatre company had presented some of the most compelling theater and exceptionally high production standards to be seen in any Off-Off-Broadway theatre.
Wertenbaker's somber play, based on a true story and brilliantly directed for the most part on the small stage by Alexandra Ornitz, tells of how second lieutenant Ralph Clark persuades the enlightened Governor and the convicts to stage the first play ever presented in Australia, thus supposedly presenting these convicts with the opportunity for redemption - or at least keeping them out of mischief. Opposed by most of the other Royal Marine officers but supported by the Governor, the play eventually gets mounted. Most of the little humor in the play, not surprisingly, comes from the rehearsals. The play is too long by about 30 minutes and the playwright does tend to overdue the obvious with regard to the convicts' deprivation and the cruelty of most of the officers; nonetheless,this was riveting and lively theatre.
Ms. Ornitz's 19 actors, playing 23 roles, were supported by a first-rate design team, who produced: a fine, imaginative set (Elizabeth Chaney); splendid lighting, with some intriguing projections (Jaie Bosse); lovely costumes (Anne Lommel); notable make-up (Lauren Pytel); and unusually fine sound (Robert Kaplowitz).
The acting of this fine ensemble, in some cases, failed to measure
up to the very high production standards. Despite the undoubtedly
hard work of the dialect coach (Deborah Dallas Cooney),
the Cockney accents of some of the actors (which seemed to be
unnecessarily exaggerated) made them difficult to understand.
Moreover, some of the otherwise good performances by other actors
in some of the quiet, intimate scenes were marred by lowered voices,
sometimes difficult to hear. This was unfortunate in such a small
space. Standouts in the large cast were: Phillipe Brenninkmeyer
(Major Ross); Jonathan Grey (2nd Lt. Clark), sensitive
yet stubborn; John Schmerling (as the kindly Governor);
Faye Jackson (Duckling Smith); David Pincus (dual
roles); John McDermott (Sideway); Roy Bacon (Captain
Tench); and David Roberts (Aborigine and Black Caesar).
Also Patrick McCaffrey; Lizzie Peet; Tom Weyburn;
Ethan Kent; Carla Briscoe; Rochelle Stempel;
Lori Funk; David Robinson; D.L. Shroder;
Martin Everall; and Megan O'Sullivan. This was a
memorable evening of Off-Off Broadway theatre. Congratulations
to all concerned.
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Copyright 1998 Dudley Stone