KPBS AIRDATE: March 5, 1997
There are those who are separated from their families, and those who aren’t but wish they were. And then there are those who are forced to the part of those they aren’t. Both thematic threads tie two very disparate plays, one comic and one rather dramatic. Up at North Coast Rep, there’s “Beau Jest,” and here on the San Diego State University campus, “Our Country’s Good.”
Timberlake Wertenbaker’s 1988 play-within-a-play takes place in 18th century Australia, with the establishment of the first British penal colony. Purportedly for ‘their country’s good,’ these petty criminals and their keepers were sent 12,000 miles from home. Staunchly disagreeing with his peers, the governor of this societal microcosm recommends rehabilitation over flagellation; he suggests that the prisoners put on a play.
So, with its cross-gender and multiple-casting, we see actors playing prisoners playing officers, and a woman being made over by playing another woman who is playing a man. Laugh-lines are interspersed with acts of unspeakable prejudice and inhumanity. There is social commentary on the brutal beginnings of modern Australia, but most of all, on the redemptive and humanizing power of theater. It’s a very potent play.
Based loosely on fact, and on Thomas Keneally’s novel, “The Playmaker,” the piece focuses on Australia’s first theatrical production, George Farquhar’s restoration comedy, “The Recruiting Officer.” When it first opened in London, “Our Country’s Good” won the prestigious Olivier Award for Best Play, and the Most Promising Playwright Prize for Wertenbaker.
In its SDSU incarnation, the short scenes are choppy and the set pieces interfere with the smooth progression of the piece. But director Michael Harvey has elicited some very credible performances from his cast of 10, playing 22 roles: notably, Chris Mangels as the socially conscious governor and the would-be playwright; Terri Park as the empowered leading lady, acting along with Janet Zaidman and Sheila Robin Roark, her partners in crime; John Le Borgne as the Major and the hangman; and Dusty Engelbrecht as an extravagant thespian-in-training. The lighting and sound are especially well done, in the reconfigured Don Powell theatre, where the audience sits on the stage and the acting is in the round.
If you, too, believe in the splendor of words and the restorative power of theater, you’ll catch “our Country’s Good” — for your own good.
Now, much closer to home, in geography and theme, is “Beau Jest,” a funny, fast-paced 1989 comedy by James Sherman, wherein a daughter can’t force herself to tell her parents the truth. Sarah loves Chris but he isn’t Jewish; Miriam and Abe would never understand. So, instead of introducing him to her folks, she calls an escort service and hires Bob Schroeder, who is thankfully an actor, but name notwithstanding, regretfully not Jewish. However, relying on episodes of “St. Elsewhere” and a stint in “Fiddler on the Roof,” he successfully impersonates Sarah’s fantasy Jewish doctor. Her boyfriend Chris doesn’t like it, her brother Joel doesn’t buy it, but Mom and Dad are thrilled. You guess who gets the girl.
Natascha Nicolai is charmingly neurotic as Sarah. And in Dan Gruber, we have a non-Jewish guy with a Jewish name playing a non-Jewish guy with a Jewish name who’s playing a Jewish guy who doesn’t really look very Jewish but manages to fool most of the family most of the time. You think that’s funny? It’s even funnier to watch. Gruber is hilarious with physical comedy, and director Steve Gallion, who mined the vein of humor in Brecht’s “Mother Courage” for the new Backbone Theatre, has spliced the verbal and physical humor with razor-sharp timing. The outcome is side-splitting. The two dinner scenes alone are worth the price of admission.
Sue Kaye and Daniel Mann are ‘poifect’ as the parents. If you’ve had or seen or known or imagined a Jewish mother, she should live so long that you would take her to see this show.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1997 Patté Productions Inc.