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Academy offers fine production

The Baltimore Sun

The Naval Academy's Masqueraders troupe is celebrating an unbroken 100-year history of presenting annual theater productions with performances of a fitting and timely play written by a 1966 graduate of nearby St. John's College.

Our Country's Good, written in 1988 by award-winning playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker, is about British military officers' attempts to rehabilitate convicts by casting them in a production of a historical play, The Recruiting Officer.

Set in Sydney, Australia, in the late 1700s, this fact-based play recounts difficulties encountered by 2nd Lt. Ralph Clark in getting prisoners to work together for five months of rehearsals.

Associate professor Christy Stanlake, in her sixth year as director of the Masqueraders, said she chose Our Country's Good in February because it not only fits academic and ethical criteria but "the script captures the very challenges and debates that often surround the act of producing theater in military environments."

Although the Masqueraders "did not have to endure floggings and rehearsing in chains," Stanlake said that the Masqueraders regularly overcome obstacles that are foreign to most theater groups: coordinating productions around parade, football and academic schedules, arranging "excusals" for midshipmen to attend rehearsals and "explaining to surprised administrators that Navy theater does exist and serves a vital mission."

"The Masqueraders' spirited endurance is perhaps our greatest asset," she added.

For this production, set designer/costumer Richard Montgomery, in his sixth year with the Masqueraders, has created a cyclorama that can become a starlit sky and a main wooden revolving stage with a center post that initially is a whipping post and later becomes a mast and a tree. For the prisoners' costumes, Montgomery invented rough burlap costumes, and he transforms these ruffians into well-dressed characters in the play.

Serving the Masqueraders as dramaturg for the fourth year, associate professor Jason Shaffer provides informative program notes covering historical and social aspects along with discussing goals of this stage design.

At the Naval Academy, we expect the cast to be in top physical condition. But you might be surprised that all 13 members are also strong actors -- at least half of whom perform at professional caliber.

David Smestuen, memorable as Stanley in last year's A Streetcar Named Desire, plays Robert Sideway, a convict and flamboyant natural actor. Smestuen also brings passion to the role of Captain Arthur Phillip. The strong, enlightened officer believes that men and women can move beyond their convict status to achieve their human potential.

Joy Dewey, last season's Blanche in Streetcar, creates a powerful and poignant Liz Morden, who initially conveys the anger and frustration of being charged with stealing food and sentenced to hang.

Liz is gradually transformed through her exposure to theater into a character with profound dignity. The scenes where Dewey's Liz is measured for her impending hanging and later when she seizes her opportunity for achieving human worth through acting are riveting.

Ken Mateo supplies another strong performance as Harry Brewer, who recognizes that joining the Navy and gaining CaptainPhillip's mentorship is what separates him from the convicts.

Brewer is haunted by his participation in the executions of young prisoners and conveys vulnerability and a need for the woman prisoner who shares his bed. Duckling Smith, sensitively played by Sierra Cox, confesses her love for Brewer as he is dying.

Michael Johnson is well-cast in the major role of 2nd Lt. Ralph Clark, who tries to turn the convicts into actors. Johnson's Clark is likable and determined and gains strength and passion as he becomes more involved in the rehearsal process with his cast.

Jeremy Ball plays the double roles of John Wisehammer, the convict who dreams of becoming the first famous writer of Australia, and Lieutenant Johnston, who is attracted to the women convicts.

Abby Foster plays shy convict Mary Brenham very well. Brenham's ability to read gains her a major role in the play where she gains a sense of self-worth and eventually is liberated through her growing affection for Clark.

Other noteworthy performers are Ben Ball as Arscott and Major Ross; Bryan Watson, who plays Freeman and Judge Collins; Katie Gideon, who is seen as Dabby and the Rev. Johnson; Gus Hernandez, as Aborigine and Lieutenant Dawes; Emily Ansorge, who plays Meg and Captain Campbell; and Kerrick Akinola, who plays Caesar and Captain Tench.

Performances of "Our Country's Good" continue at 8 p.m. today and tomorrow and 2 p.m. Sunday at Mahan Hall. Tickets are $10 for the general public and $7 for groups of 10 and are available at the door. Parking is available at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium with a complimentary shuttle. 410-293-8497.

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