Japan isn’t the only country in the world that designates certain people who contribute a great deal to the national culture as “Living Treasures.” Australia has them, and ensconced high in that firmament is the author Thomas Keneally. At last count he has written 33 novels – most famously the one on which the Steven Spielberg film Schindler’s List is based – as well as a slew of nonfiction, including a well-received concise biography of Lincoln. Most of Keneally’s work is based on true historical events, including a 1987 novel titled The Playmaker, about a penal colony in New South Wales in the 1780s where a group of transported convicts and some of the Royal Marines who oversee them decide to put on a play – George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer – as a sort of rehabilitative exercise.
In 1988, the British playwright/screenwriter Timberlake Wertenbaker turned Keneally’s historical novel into a work for the stage, Our Country’s Good, a new production of which will open on July 9 at the Byrdcliffe Theater. The story is a fascinating one, with a vivid array of characters, meaty themes like redemption, colonialism, class warfare, justice and the civilizing role of art plus thought-provoking parallels between the characters in the play-within-a-play and the prisoners enacting them.
“With a motley cast of convicts, a leading lady who may be hanged and only two copies of the play available, rehearsals for this Restoration comedy aren’t going well. Yet as the barriers between officers and convicts break down, they start to discover each other, both onstage and behind the scenes.” So reads the synopsis of the play released by the folks from VOICETheatre, who will be using their new show to unveil a Byrdcliffe Theater that has, thanks to the generosity of some anonymous local donors, been outfitted for the first time with insulation, heating and air conditioning.
The renovation is a monumental step forward for the revered century-old Woodstock landmark, where watching a play in the past has sometimes been an exercise in endurance on a hot summer night. Now, for the first time, the space will become a three-season theater. A second stage of renovations is planned that will upgrade the lobby and dressing rooms.
As reported in this publication a few months ago by Violet Snow (https://bit.ly/1MbQ0KA), the plan to rehabilitate the Byrdcliffe Theater came about as a result of VOICETheatre’s search for a permanent upstate home after being priced out of its church-basement digs in the West Village. Founded in New York City in 1988 and first hosted by the venerable downtown alternative theater La MaMa, the company has played all over the world; but VOICETheatre artistic director Shauna Kanter found that, like many smaller theatrical ventures with shoestring budgets, it could no longer afford to be housed even off-off-Broadway.
Then a Woodstock-based angel stepped in with the suggestion to relocate to the Byrdcliffe Theater, forming a partnership with its owner, the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild, and backed that notion up with a financial contribution big enough to begin to overcome the theater’s temperature and ventilation challenges. Additional donors jumped on the bandwagon, and enough of the work is now done to invite the public in for the run of a great new play.
In addition to four weekly performances of Our Country’s Good, running through July 26, VOICETheatre will celebrate the venue’s history with a retrospective exhibition of Byrdcliffe Theater memorabilia displayed in the lobby. Among the companies whose past productions will be represented are the Woodstock Fringe, River Arts, Bird-on-a-Cliff, Performing Arts of Woodstock and the Woodstock Players.
Directed by Kanter with an 11-member cast that includes Sean Marrinan, Megan Bones, John Gazzale, Christa Trinler, Ron Morehead and Lachlan Brooks, Our Country’s Good will be performed on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 p.m., with 2 p.m. matinées on Sundays. Tickets cost $25 general admission, $20 for seniors and students. For reservations call (845) 679-0154.
VOICETheatre presents Our Country’s Good, July 9-26, Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m., Sunday, 2 p.m., $25/$20, Byrdcliffe Theater, 380 Upper Byrdcliffe Road, Woodstock; (845) 679-0154.