Monday, May 11, 2015

Our Country’s Good Couldn’t Be Better!

Clara Hillier (from left), Arianna Jacques and Jessi Walters.

By Tina Arth and Darrell Baker

It’s always a challenge to review a show we’ve never seen – or even heard of. With shows that are new to us, we sometimes find ourselves praising the actors’ ability to make the most of what is, in our estimation, a weak script. Happily, Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good, based on Thomas Keneally’s 1987 novel The Playmaker, is a superb piece of theater, and its power is only enhanced by Bag & Baggage’s fine production. Director Scott Palmer and his troupe (nine of ten cast members are members of the B&B Resident Acting Company) have a lot of fun bringing the play’s 22 characters to life, but there is no wacky quick-change shtick to trivialize the themes of the work (although it is, at times, tremendously funny).

The play is set at the end of the 18th century. A group of convicts, under the supervision of the Royal Marines, have been exiled to a penal colony in Australia. As the play opens unseen convicts are heard reacting to the flogging of one of the prisoners. Some time after the ship has landed, the colony’s governor, Captain Arthur Phillip, comes up with the idea that the prisoners’ rehabilitation might be effected by allowing them to put on a play – an idea that is met with derision and hostility by some of the other Marines.  Despite this opposition (and the awkwardness of directing a largely illiterate prisoner cast, some bent on escape, others in chains or sentenced to hang), the play within a play must go on.  Through their participation in the process, the relationship between the convicts and their jailors gradually shifts– thus illustrating the power of theater to transform the lives of those it touches.

One advantage of a repertory company is that, if the members are carefully chosen, there are no weak links – and this is certainly true of the Bag & Baggage players. With a cast this strong, it is difficult (but not impossible!) to select a few standout performances. Andrew Beck (Lieutenant Ralph Clark) seems almost too much the upright British officer, until one realizes that contemporary stereotypes are often based on authentic prototypes. While internally, his attitudes change, externally he maintains a stiff upper-lip throughout the production. Arianne Jacques (when playing convict Mary Brenham) is especially convincing as she blooms from a frightened and remorseful recluse to a leading lady and paramour to the buttoned-down Lieutenant Clark.  Perhaps the most moving performance comes from Gary Strong (Captain Collins and Robert Sideway). As Collins, he is a vicious, small-minded bully of a fop – the man we most love to hate. As prisoner Sideway, he maintains a curious dignity even while writhing in pain, and the audience cannot help but cringe at the cruelty inflicted on him (ironically, by characters like Captain Collins).          

Among other challenges, the cast is required (because of their multiple roles) to shift fluidly between a variety of accents appropriate to their social class and ethnic background. Colin Wood (Major Ross/Ketch) is particularly effective – he has mastered the distinctive dialects of a snooty Scots officer and a desperate Irish criminal/hangman.

The set, while simple, is remarkably evocative and functional. The huge hanging sheets create the effect of a ship’s sails, allow for seamless entrances and exits, facilitate fast scene changes, serve as the scrim for shadow play, and ultimately suggest the theater curtains for the convicts’ play. A few movable boxes and a cleverly constructed coffin/dinghy/table constitute the stage dressing.

Our only complaint (a minor one, at that) is the expository chanting between scenes. While some exposition is necessary, the spookily pretentious repetition is out of character with the gritty, grounded nature of the play. This is by no means a reason to stay home – Our Country’s Good is very, very good, and should not be missed.

Bag & Baggage’s Our Country’s Good is playing at Hillsboro’s Venetian Theatre, 235 E. Main Street, through Sunday, May 31 with performances Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m.

Monday, May 4, 2015


Jake Beaver, Adam Caniparoli, Essie Canty Bertain, Erin Zelazny, Beth
Noelle, Jessica Jaeger, and Nicholas Jaeger

By Tina Arth and Darrell Baker

Beaverton Civic Theatre’s current production, Songs for a New World, is something of a theatrical enigma. Josh Pounders, in his director’s notes, explains that it “has been called, among other things, a musical revue, and abstract musical, and a theatrical song cycle.” None of these phrases really captures the essence of Jason Robert Brown’s powerful work of musical stagecraft.

While there is no plot, or even dialogue, the show’s sixteen songs are bound together by three unities. First, there is place – all of the songs are set in “the new world” (i.e., the Americas, and the United States in particular), starting in 1492 and continuing on to the present. Second, there is a thematic unity – most of the songs deal with periods of crisis and transition in the singers’ lives. Finally, there is a unity of intensity – almost all of the songs are infused with a pulsing energy normally found in just a small percentage of a musical’s numbers. It is this intensity that creates the show’s overwhelming strength and, ironically, its one weakness. Songs for a New World skirts the line between powerful and overpowering, and would be easier for an audience to assimilate if there were a few more gentle or lighthearted moments.

From the moment the audience enters the auditorium, it is clear that this is no ordinary musical. The stage is dominated by two keyboards and a rather comprehensive rhythm set-up, including
not only drums but also a triangle, tubular bells, a maraca – you get the picture. The backdrop is an enormous compass, painted so well that it creates a three-dimensional optical illusion.  When the musicians start playing and the vocalists begin to sing the opening number, Pounders’ success at casting and music director Beth Noelle’s success at integrating vocals with instrumentation are immediately evident – the harmonies are tight and beautifully balanced with the musicians. Perhaps the keyboard players’ respect for their vocalists is enhanced by the fact that both Noelle and Tyrene Bada not only play keyboards, they sing – sometimes from behind their keyboards, sometimes as lead vocalists at center stage.

The female vocalists (Bada, Noelle, Essie Canty Bertain, Jessica Jaeger, and Erin Zelazny) have ample opportunity to shine. Zelazny clearly has the most fun – her take on the humorous “Surabaya Santa” contributes much-needed comic relief, and “I’m Not Afraid” is simply heartbreaking.  Additional comedy comes from a thoroughly unlikely source – Jaeger’s “Just One Step” is kind of like a musical suicide note, but without the usual accompanying dose of depression. Perhaps the single most beautiful moment in the show is Bertain’s “Stars and the Moon.” Although it is a simple and predictable song (kind of “You Can’t Hide Your Lying Eyes” without the infidelity), she gives it a haunting lyrical quality that holds the audience completely in thrall.

The show’s men certainly carry their own weight. Jake Beaver’s commanding presence and powerful voice drive many of the ensemble numbers, his solo on “She Cries” is flawless, and a bit of stageplay between Beaver and Bada at the end of  “The River Won’t Flow” is a tiny, shining jewel (literally and figuratively) in the production.  While Nicholas Jaeger’s voice lacks Beaver’s depth and resonance, his physical presence and vocals project both vulnerability and asceticism.  Add in athleticism when he somehow manages to pull off the jazzy “The Steam Train,” which feels like it was written based on African American stereotypes.  Adam Caniparoli is more actor than singer, and he is most effective in “The World Was Dancing” where his wistful beginning quickly dissolves into cynical ennui.

An unexpected bonus is watching the musicians – especially Noelle, whose intensity on the keyboard often rivals the intensity of the vocalists. She goes well beyond mere accompaniment, and her physicality reflects and enhances the spirit of each number.

Many thanks to Josh Pounders and BCT for bringing this unusual and compelling musical to town – audiences will find it an evening well spent.

Songs for a New World runs through Saturday, May 16th at the Beaverton City Library Auditorium, 12375 SW Fifth Street, Beaverton, with performances at 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 2:00 p.m. on Sundays.