In the 1780s, British soldiers staged a production of the comedy “The Recruiting Officer” with convicts in an Australian penal colony. Two hundred years later, Australian author Thomas Keneally described the historical events of that production in the book “The Playmaker,” which itself was adapted into a play by British playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker. This week, the Department of Musical Theatre will perform this play, entitled “Our Country’s Good.”

Our Country’s Good

Tomorrow at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.
Arthur Miller Theatre
Tickets from $10

“It’s theater about how important theater can be, in its rawest form,” said Malcolm Tulip, an assistant professor in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance and the production’s director.

“Our Country’s Good” grapples with crime and rehabilitation, and the role that theater — and art in general — can play in that process. The opening scene reveals some of the physical horrors the Australian prisoners face, while the officers debate how best to punish three of the convicts for stealing. One suggests death, another a less severe punishment and a third officer gives up completely. Their exchange is difficult to distinguish from a contemporary discussion about crime in America.

The colony’s leader comes up with a more creative solution: What about a play?

“What’s so fascinating about these characters is that they are really transformed by the play,” said MT&D sophomore Jane Bruce. “It’s what theater is meant to do.”

Tulip was inspired in part by the work of Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP), an organization committed to cultivating artistic expression in prison communities. The testimonials of the prisoners in this project will be printed in the play’s program.

During rehearsal last week, the 17 actors in the ensemble stretched in a circle, groaning and grunting from the exertion.

“You guys are like the love children of Chewbaccas and Teletubbies, just from all the noises,” Tulip called out good-naturedly.

In the corner of the rehearsal room stood a small table with nearly all the props for the performance. The actors will wear black clothing, Tulip said, with smaller articles to denote their characters, like jackets and hats. Fitting with the play’s emphasis on a “raw” form of theater, the focus of this production is the actors.

“The process has been really accessible,” said MT&D junior R.J. Brown, who plays one of the convicts. “Malcolm encourages input from the cast, and the play has really developed.”

For many of the actors, all of whom are musical theater students, “Our Country’s Good” is their first “straight” play, meaning it has no musical numbers. While they explore the flexibility of this form and identify with the growth of their characters, Bruce said she prefers the somewhat more rigid structure afforded by musicals.

Despite this preference, Tulip said the students are excelling in rehearsals.

“It’s not different from directing other students,” said Tulip, who leads musical theater students in a straight play every year. “I have no conceived ideas about what the play should look like, and we develop the set and approach with the actors. It’s a good educational opportunity.”

And if acting in a play could rehabilitate a group of convicts, imagine what it might do for a rag-tag band of musical theater students.

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