It is a matter of historic fact that in 1789, a production of Farquar’s “The Recruiting Officer” was performed by male and female convicts imprisoned in England’s newly founded penal colony in New South Wales, Australia. Timberlake Wertenbaker’s stage play (based on a novel by Thomas Keneally of “Schindler’s List” fame) recounts the efforts of British 2nd Lt. Ralph Clark (Todd Nielsen) to stage a sophisticated comedy with men and women who had been reduced to a subhuman level of existence by years of scorn and abuse. Director David Rose’s staging of this deeply moving work captures more than the painstaking, cathartic creation of a theater work by the condemned and their jailers. The magnificent 16-member ensemble actually communicates the essence of the birth of a civilization from the transcending power of art.
Nielsen is perfect as the callow, morally rigid Clark who originally takes on the directorship of the play in order to gain favor with the colony’s governor, Capt. Arthur Phillip, played with an excellent balance of authority and humanity by Charles Howerton. It is deeply moving to watch Nielsen’s Clark evolve as a human being as he thrusts himself into the lives of his downtrodden troupe while combating the sadistic viciousness of his superior officer, Maj. Robbie Ross, performed with an intense, brogue-spewing malevolence by Jon Palmer.
The deep power of this production, however, emanates from Dabby (Lisa Beezley), Mary (Michelle Duffy), Liz (Bonita Friederacy), Duckling (Melissa Hanson) and Meg (Patricia Cullen), the five convict women who, by the grace of the dignity they feel as thespians, evolve from a level of vulgar, animalistic distrust and savagery to become the earth mothers of a new civilization.
Beezley is hilarious as the raucous, larger-than-life peasant who immediately can see the truth of any situation. Duffy’s Mary is an arresting study as the bright but monumentally inhibited young woman who literally blooms when she discovers her talent for acting under the more than directorial guidance of Clark. Friederacy’s Liz exudes the ferocity of a caged beast whose mastery of the role of a grand lady is more awe-inspiring than it is refined. There is an exotic blending of sensuality and melancholy to Hanson’s Duckling, an amoral survivor who discovers too late she truly loved the midshipman who had bedded and protected her. And Cullen is marvelously crusty as the aged Meg who has seen and done it all.
It is difficult to exclude any member of this large ensemble from praise. Lego Louis gives an inspired performance as Duckling’s raging, jealous but conscious-stricken lover, Midshipman Harry Brewer. Blaise Messenger lends booming-voiced authority to his professional pickpocket, Sideway, who actually had been a quite active theatergoer as he practiced his profession in London.
Nick DeGruccio is quite effective as the overly intense prisoner Wisehammer, whose reverence for the written word causes him to steadfastly refuse to allow any dialogue in the play to be altered. And Kelly Foran is appealingly tragic as the innocent Irish lad, Ketch Freeman, who has been forced by circumstances to become the colony’s hangman. The only glaring discord in the production is Clayton Whitfield’s Scottish officer, Jemmy Campbell. His attempt at a comically indecipherable Celtic brogue is as inappropriate as it is incorrect.
The wonderfully impressionistic production designs of Bradley Kaye (set), Matthew O. O’Donnell (lights) and John Fisher (sound) do much to enhance the mood of this outstanding Colony Theatre production.