Two actors bring a whole town to life in the funny and moving
Thursday, March 31, 2005
There is a moment in Stones in His Pockets, the tour de force two-man play running at the Circle Theater, that conjures unsettling reminders of Jeff Weise, the 16-year-old shooter in the recent Red Lake school massacre.
Desperate for an easy answer to Red Lake, the national media has seized upon the fact that, days before killing nine people, including himself, Weise had watched Gus Van Sant’s film Elephant, which deals with the subject of a school shooting. Similarly, one of the characters in Stones lashes out at the influence of Hollywood, of unobtainable ideals, and the film industry’s images of fantasy in a frustrated attempt to explain away a young man’s suicide.
Yet Marie Jones’ award-winning play is far too smart, subtle and insightful to lead such an easy cow to slaughter. Instead, using only two actors and a herd of well-wrought characters, Jones’ script leads us into a field of cattle and challenges us to try and blame just one for the boy’s suicide.
The play, directed by John Rousseau for Pacific Repertory, tells the story of a small coastal Irish town with a dying cattle-based economy. Desperate and dispossessed, the locals see their lives turned upside down when a big budget Hollywood production company arrives to film a movie.
For £40 a day, meals and the promise of obscure screen stardom, the locals stand around looking desperate and dispossessed against the magnificent backdrop of their countryside while American movie stars slaughter Irish accents and misrepresent Irish history.
Jones’ script primarily focuses on two of these extras, Jake (Mike Baker) and Charlie (Justin Gordon). Jake is a jaded local whose own American dream did a 180 after a few years tending bar in New York City. Having recently returned to Ireland from this misadventure, he is the first to be outraged by the taunting, hypnotic gleam of Hollywood, especially when the movie’s starlet seduces and uses him.
Charlie is even worse off. Having left his bankrupt video store, he is touring around Ireland and living in a canvas tent. A manic depressive, he has written a screenplay and clings to the wild hopes that it will made into a film some day.
Jones’ wonderful script constantly peels off of Jake and Charlie, forcing the actors to morph into other characters, such as the petulant starlet, the defensively offensive Irish assistant director, the snarky, brown-nosing third assistant director, the distant British director, a meathook security man, a gay accent coach, and a half dozen other beautifully crafted locals.
The impressive thing about Jones’ writing is that none of these characters come off as one-dimensional or stereotypical (except maybe the accent coach and the security guard). Each character is revealed to be rich with conflict regarding the town’s cultural, political and economic relationship with the film company.
And of course, the play is funny. In the grand, gray-and-green tradition of Irish literature, this great tragedy wears harlequin’s colors and quaffs a stout. The writing is as hilarious as it is sad and that’s what makes it so good.
Yet with all that said, the play would be a disaster without a strong director and two remarkable actors. Fortunately, PacRep’s production has all three. John Rousseau has sculpted a tremendously engaging theater-in-the-round experience. The play’s lighting and sound design, coupled with a resourceful and creative blocking scheme, makes for a dynamic and entertaining play.
But the play lives and dies on the shoulders of Baker and Gordon, who are both magnificent. With seamless transitions, perfect body language and near-flawless voices, they create a wealth of easily identifiable people.
In one scene, a traditional Irish wake, they somehow manage to convey an entire room of people in the way they move and act and talk and shake hands. The entire play is reminiscent of dance as the two actors swirl about the round, transforming from one character into another.
Baker, who was fantastic as Tobias in The Western Stage’s production of Sweeney Todd last year, is especially good as Sean, a young junkie with a love for Hollywood, and as Mickey, an old sod whose only claim to fame is his status as the last surviving extra from The Quiet Man, a John Wayne movie filmed 50 years earlier in the town.
Gordon, who was tremendous in MPC’s 2004 production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead!, hits pitch perfect characterizations of the starlet, who he manages to convey as surprisingly sympathetic, and the production’s assistant director, an Irishman caught between his allegiances to Hollywood and his people.
In the end, this heavy play is startlingly buoyant. Despite the grim economic outlook of the small town, their hope and pride and solidarity keep them afloat. They understand, like we come to understand, that there are no easy answers to tragedy, despite Hollywood’s and the American media’s insistence otherwise.
Stones In His Pockets runs Wednesday-Sunday at 7:30pm with matinee performances on Sunday and Wednesday at 2pm through April 21 at the Circle Theater, between 8th and 9th on Casanova in Carmel. $22-$30/adults; $15-$25/seniors and students; $6/children under 12. 622-0100, www.pacrep.org or www.ticketguys.com.