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THEATER REVIEWS : Play Within a Play Sets Stage for Redemption : Australian prison inmates in 'Our Country's Good' discover undreamed of possibilities through their roles.

March 03, 1994|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For most of us, the theater is rarely more than a diversion.

But in the real-life circumstances depicted in Timberlake Wertenbaker's "Our Country's Good," the very act of putting on the first play ever performed in Australia proved to be a major turning point, not only for the participants but for the social evolution of a continent.

In 1789, the inhabitants of the Australian penal colonies were the cast-off dregs of British society: transported convicts serving out their days in isolated squalor under the brutal regime of their naval officer jailers.

But when the colony's newly arrived governor and a well-intentioned lieutenant enlisted some of the most hard-bitten convicts to perform in a makeshift staging of one of the few scripts in their possession, it was a social experiment without precedent.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 10, 1994 Ventura West Edition Ventura County Life Part J Page 22 Zones Desk 3 inches; 75 words Type of Material: Correction
Joan of Arc--A recent review in Ventura County Life of the musical "Joan of Arc" stated that "little remains of the original libretto by Susan Stewart Potter." Upon re-examination, this statement requires amplification. According to director John Blondell and composer David Potter, revisions were made to the libretto, but both stated that this is part of the normal development process and that Susan Stewart Potter collaborated in that process at every stage and deserves full credit as author of the libretto in its current form.

Amid the colony's hellish conditions, so vividly evoked in Ensemble Theatre Company's impeccable production, we witness nothing less than the redemption of lost souls through the process of creating art.

That the convicts' play itself is an inconsequential farce makes no difference. The real value of their participation lies in the undreamed of human possibilities they discover through their roles.

"You've seen rich ladies before, haven't you?" their director, Lt. Ralph Clark (Ivan Pelly), queries as he tries to get them to assume the postures appropriate to their characters.

"Well, I've robbed a few," replies Liz Morden (Emma-Jane Huerta), a convict under sentence of hanging. As rehearsals progress, Morden's moral sensibilities evolve with stunning force.

On the flip side of the process, Pelly's Clark descends from an initially superior stance as he's drawn into a desperate affair with another convict (Alison Coutts).

Christopher Vore plays the bullying officer violently opposed to the play. "We'll be holding balls for them next," he sneers with great distinction. His abusive treatment of the convicts makes for some of the evening's most harrowing moments.

Wertenbaker's extraordinary celebration of transcendent human capability uses adult language and situations in the service of its hard-hitting realism, so mature viewing is advised.

With the 11-member cast donning multiple roles in rapid-fire succession, the play's challenging production logistics have been handled as smoothly as the delivery of its powerful message by director Robert G. Weiss.

The few rough spots are usually matters of pacing: A little more breathing room is needed for the emotional shifts that accompany Clark's love scene and for the surreal commentaries by a native aborigine (Mark Lee). And one pathetically self-deprecating, fever-racked character (Bink Goncharoff) expires with such an exaggerated flourish--arm flopping in an enormous arc just as his girlfriend pleads with him not to die--that the effect is laughable rather than tragic.

But then, maybe we're just not that sorry to see him go.

* "Our Country's Good," Alhecama Theatre, 914 Santa Barbara St., Santa Barbara, through March 20, Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Cost: $14 to $19. For reservations or information, call 962-8606.

SOUTH PACIFIC

In the masterfully unreal universe of Rodgers and Hammerstein, "South Pacific," now in its 50th anniversary year, endures as one of the team's most exotic retreats. If you're looking for escape, why not head for a tropical island paradise where the inhabitants spontaneously give voice to their feelings in perfectly rhymed song, and where full-bodied orchestras lie in wait behind every palm frond?

Even if you're not tempted by the seductive airs of "Bali H'ai" and "Some Enchanted Evening," PCPA Theaterfest's revival offers other notable enticements.

Topping the list are two strong actors--Jonathan Gillard Daly and Kerry Neel--who breathe new life into the familiar romantic leads.

Daly elevates the character of Emile de Becque, the reclusive plantation owner, to an embittered figure of near-"Casablanca" stature after his true love Nellie (Neel) bails on their engagement when she learns about his first marriage to a now-deceased Polynesian. His subsequent rendition of "This Nearly Was Mine" reopens the wounds of failed love affairs the world over.

After establishing an engaging self-confidence in her early numbers, Neel's wholesome, girl-next-door Nellie is convincingly torn apart by the racial bias she discovers within herself, something she can't even explain.

The parallel story line about doomed interracial love between a naive young lieutenant (Tim Fullerton) and a beautiful island girl (Alysa Sylvia Lobo) founders somewhat on the shoals of the former's self-absorbed delivery, but it proves the only weak link in an otherwise impressive cast.

The play's broadside attack on the deep-rooted prejudice beneath the surface of the American ideal is one of its most surprising elements. For that, we have to thank the musical's unusually literate source material--James A. Michener's "Tales of the South Pacific."

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