It’s understandable that people associate Irish theater with plays about the centuries-long strife with England, the isolation of its rural communities and the intense intergenerational battles within families. One forgets that Irish theater can be funny and playful as well, as the Yale Repertory Theatre mounts a production of Belfast-based playwright Marie Jones’s fanciful and entertaining “Stones in His Pockets,” running now through February 16.
Under the direction of Evan Yionoulis and a game cast of two outstanding performers, the tall, lanky Fred Arsenault and the imp-like Scottish-born Euan Morton, “Stones” showcases live theater at its best, when the relationship between actors and audience feels quite palpable and the action on stage not only demands but challenges a theatergoer’s imagination.
One could also say that rewarding theater has a cinematic quality to it, but that is literally true in the case of “Stones in His Pocket.” Jones sets her work in a small rural Irish community in County Kerry that has been invaded by a Hollywood contingent making a (fictional) film called “The Quiet Valley,” no doubt to subtly suggest a classic such as “The Quiet Man.” The plot focuses on two locals hired as extras for the endeavor, though Arsenault and Morton each play any number of characters throughout the evening, often changing character on a dime, identified only by a change of voice, a slouch in body movement, or raising up a hood. Remarkably, it takes only the first or second of these split-second changes to adjust to these actions, making it quite easy to follow the action and get to know the characters.
Between the denizens of the surrounding community and the interlopers from the film industry, Jones has created a variety of interesting, quirky characters who not only entertain the audience but also keep the actors on their toes. Arsenault shines as the popular Jake who’s comfortable in the local pubs but a tad shy around the women. He’s the more reasonable and responsible of the two, while Morton’s Charlie is more cantankerous and feisty. Charlie has relocated to the village after losing his video shop in an economic downturn and carries a few other secrets that will be revealed by the end of the evening.
In the major plot line, Jake catches the eye, or perhaps more accurately the ear, of the film’s American diva, the as-we-are-led to believe alluring but temperamental Caroline Giovanni, who is eagerly limned by Morton, who will also turn up as the film’s manic assistant director, the overconfident and assured American director and several of Caroline’s burly and over protective handlers. Similarly, Arsenault will embody among others an aged extra who had a similar job decades ago on “The Quiet Man,” an ambitious young female production assistant, and a troubled local youth.
After the genuinely funny, frequently hilarious, first act, the play takes a slightly serious turn in the second act, as Jones really gets down to skewering the production crew’s behavior and, not unexpectedly, extolling the virtues and values of the native folk fortunately without laying on the sentiment. She manages to keep things funny and amusing, however, particularly in a scene where Jake and Charlie share their own ideas for a potential film with the veteran Hollywood director.
A especially clever and laugh-out-loud funny sequence involves the screening of a series of outtakes from the film, featuring Morton’s Caroline as the leading lady and Arsenault as the actor playing Rory, the ruggedly handsome leading man, as they attempt to deliver their lines and deal with photo-bombing horses and recalcitrant cows. It’s a concept effectively employed again for the evening’s atypical “end credits,” which are worth hanging around for.
Edward T. Morris has created a flexible, minimalist set which covers the stage floor and the lower portion of the back wall with a bright green Astroturf, with the bright blue Irish sky dotted with white clouds rising above. Two hay wagons filled with rolled turf are off to either side of the center, serving when necessary as tables in a pub or providing cover for some quick costume changes. A large camera crane dominates stage right, while a klieg light and eventually a director’s chair will add some ambience on stage left. But most of the locations are left to the imagination, with helpful suggestions from Morris’ projections and Solomon Weisbard’s lighting.
Nikki Delhomme has provided Jake and Charlie with appropriately rustic outfits, with dark brown suits for their on-the-job forays back to 19th century Ireland and a collection of more contemporary street clothes that can readily be adapted to suggest the various characters they represent, including shirts than can quickly be slid below the shoulders for some of the female characters. Quite early on, these costume cues help telegraph the frequent and sudden character switches.
Admittedly, the story Jones chooses to tell is not especially deep, but that’s not quite the point. Instead, she’s reminding us that the Irish theatrical tradition can be full of joy as well, as the camaraderie between Jake and Charlie and the success of their multiple portrayals hinges on the camaraderie that develops between the audience and the two actors. Their success depends on the audience’s willingness to not only go along for the ride, but more especially, to deliberately wish for their success in a subtle collusion.
For me, the evening served as a reminder as to why I enjoy theater so much, through a shared experience that allows me to use my imagination, that frequently confounds my expectations, and creates an unspoken, yet absolutely essential bond between actor and audience. You couldn’t ask for a better time than that.
For tickets and information, call the Yale Repertory Theater’s box office at 203.432.1234 or visit the theater’s website at www.yalerep.org.