Our Country’s Good, Strawdog Theatre Company. The redemptive power of the arts is the crux of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play (based on Thomas Keneally’s novel The Playmaker, itself based on a true story). In 1788 British authorities send 11 boatloads of petty criminals to what would become Sydney, Australia, hoping to prevent the kind of unrest that would shortly tear France apart. This leaves the new governor of the penal colony in a quandary: how can he make productive citizens out of convicts who would rather have been hanged than exiled for life? After discussion with his mutinous soldiers, the benevolent governor (Tim Curtis) decides that the play’s the thing, and under the flustered direction of Lieutenant Ralph Clark (Kyle Hamman), the convicts rehearse a tepid drawing-room comedy that nevertheless brings out the humanity of all involved.
That, at least, is the premise. In this production, however, the large ensemble of convicts start off as just too darn likable, undermining their transformation and making the pat happy ending feel disappointingly like the swell of a Disney movie. But some elements render this staging a treat: creative direction from Shade Murray (of Roadworks) and excellent lighting by Lynn Koscielniak, sound by Chris J. Johnson, and set design by David Wolf. Two crates turn into a rowboat with the help of the right lights and the sound of oars in water, while a few swags of canvas become a large military encampment.