'Our Country's Good' shows rehab power of theater

Human language is a strange beast.

Some of the simplest words we know -- love, hate, death, life -- convey our most profound thoughts and emotions.

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Matt Jacobson/Special to the Journal-World

A motley cast of criminals turned thespians will perform in University Theatre's production of "Our Country's Good." The show opens Friday at Kansas University's Crafton-Preyer Theatre.

"Our Country's Good," a play by Timberlake Wertenbaker, puts that linguistic peculiarity on full display, says Delores Ringer, Kansas University assistant professor of theater and film. Ringer is directing a KU stage production of the play, which opens Friday night on the University Theatre's Crafton-Preyer stage.

"This is a challenging work for students," says Ringer, who also designed the set, costumes and sound for the show. "It demands a wide range of emotions that carry great weight."

The play is set in Australia, circa 1789. English convicts are shipped to a penal colony there, where violent tempers and surly dispositions abound.

"It is a place of great despair," Ringer says. "Conditions are harsh."

The colony's governor, however, decides his prison population need not wither and drag the community down. Convicts can be rehabilitated, he says, but they need some healthy entertainment. Lt. Ralph Clark eagerly agrees, hoping to gain favor with the governor. He begins organizing a play to be presented in honor of King George III's birthday. His cast of convicts is less than thrilled.

This is where things get interesting, says KU student Lawrence P. Henderson, who plays Major Robbie Ross.

"It's fun watching the prisoners try to act," the Lansing freshman says.

Yet, something strange starts to happen. The convicts, many of whom cannot read and have never acted, begin to warm to the play. They learn to work together, even as arguments and fist fights erupt.

"It is a great example of the transformational power of theater," Ringer says. "The convicts begin to expand their notion of self.

"As they learn to speak and behave like the upper-class characters they portray, they learn they are capable of acting like those who imprison them."

Professor Paul Meier, who teaches in KU's theater and film department, says language plays an integral role in "Our Country's Good."

Past Event

Our Country's Good

  • Friday, March 12, 2004, 7:30 p.m.
  • Crafton-Preyer Theater, Murphy Hall, 1530 Naismith Dr., Lawrence
  • All ages / $10 - $16

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"The accents and the vocabulary are crucial for the characters and not all that easy to master," says Meier, who serves as voice and dialect coach for the play. "But the students are doing very well."

Officers in the play speak using proper British English; convicts lean toward the "slash" language of the criminal element. Others have learned to walk a fine line somewhere in between.

"My character realizes the officers will only listen to her when she talks like them," says Niccole Thurman, a Shawnee junior. "It becomes a way for her to gain power."

Ringer says another challenging aspect of the play is its structure, which is somewhat problematic for traditional theatrical production.

"The play has 22 scenes in two acts," she says. "Some scenes are short, some are a little longer, but there is often a considerable passage of time between jumps.

"It's really not unlike contemporary film, only we don't have a camera that can cut quickly."

Elisabeth Ahrens, Topeka junior, says people will enjoy the play for both its innovations and traditional themes.

"I think 'Our Country's Good' appeals to everyone," she says. "All the scenes are little jewels building to a larger lesson in the power of human emotion."

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