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Original sins

Our Country's Good reveals darkness down under

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Australia has trouble shaking its reputation as a sunny, happy land of no worries -- the odd dingo attack notwithstanding. The popular conception of Down Under generally involves boomerangs, "barbies" and beer, somewhere along the lines of Texas or the California coast, only with a different accent. But Australia's heritage has as much darkness as any continent. The Sydney Olympics probably won't linger on how the country was established as a British penal colony. Fortunately, the games coincide with Theatre Gael's production of Our Country's Good, Timberlake Wertenbaker's complex consideration of Australia's origins. Filled with intriguing material to a fault, Our Country's Good is so overstuffed with ideas as to tax the efforts of Theatre Gael's long but lively production.

In the late 1780s conditions are dire in the new colony: Food supplies are nearly as limited as the recreational pastimes, which are limited to shooting cockatoos and either flogging the prisoners or fornicating with them. The colony's governor (Bryan Davis) and upstanding second lieutenant Clark (Adam Fristoe) hit upon the idea of having the convicts stage a play as a step toward refinement and rehabilitation.

Clark's decision to stage a comedy called The Recruiting Officer changes his dynamic with some of the prisoners. Wertenbaker's script is especially interested in the state of the female exiles, some of whom were arrested as prostitutes, while most of the others were forced to sell themselves during the long, harsh sea voyage. Lead actress Mary Brenham (Anne Towns) is the most ladylike, while her fellows tend to be coarse-tongued, hot-tempered bawds. Stacy Melich, Sherri Sutton and Hope Mirlis entertainingly squabble and tease, sort of like the inmates of a cockney Chained Heat.

The colony's conditions take a toll on everyone, as an aborigine (Cuong Thi Nguyen) contracts smallpox, a prisoner (Bryan Davis) is forced to serve as a hangman and an officer (Kyle Crew) loses his sanity over his involvement in executions. Meanwhile we see many scenes, ranging from broadly comic to shockingly brutal, involving prisoner participation in Clark's production.

Our Country's Good is based on a novel by Thomas Keneally titled The Playmaker, and frequently seems more interested in exploring the concepts of "theater" than retelling Australia's early history.

In a scene where the British officers debate the merits of staging the play, two actresses play male officers, and Nguyen plays the white chaplain: Wertenbaker here essentially insists that the audience step back and regard the value of Our Country's Good. Later he has a character point out that attentive audiences will understand if an actor portrays multiple parts, a heavy-handed comment on the extensive doubling of the play's own cast.

But not every performer who "doubles up" plays both roles proficiently. The mixed-gender idea is merely a gimmick, while Feldman and Davis both prove more convincing as convicts trying to uphold their dignity rather than stiff upper-lipped English officers. Maybe the looseness of the casting leads to Damon Boggess, the youngest-looking member of the company, portraying sadistic Major Ross, the second-most senior officer of the play. Boggess' youthful demeanor (not to mention his wig's resemblance to a Daniel Boone cap) undermines the menace of his role.

Lt. Clark faces multiple dilemmas as a British officer with a bride in England, moved by the plight of the prisoners as well as the charms in England. Though Clark undergoes changes and advances the story, he's not really the protagonist, with Our Country's Good lacking a specific hero or central role. The play has an exotic, well-researched setting and subplots with many sharp conflicts, but it's undermined by its episodic nature and unnecessary complications. A lovely speech about nostalgia for English rain can give way to a speech deliberately written in impenetrable slang.

The energy of the cast and the drums and didgeridoos in Clint Thornton's sound design go a long way to keeping the lengthy production from dragging. Wertenbaker's theatrical ideas never seem to perfectly integrate with his account of Australian history, but Our Country's Good frequently provides insights into the birth of a nation that we might not know as well as we think.

Our Country's Good plays through Oct. 8 at Theatre Gael, 14th Street Playhouse, 173 14th St., with performances Thurs.-Sat. at 8 p.m. and Sun. at 5 p.m. $18. 404-876-9762.

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