BWW Review: Keegan Theatre's STONES IN HIS POCKETS an Eye-Opening Visit to the Emerald Isle
Ah Ireland, the Emerald Isle. Home to those charming, vertically-challenged leprechauns and humble, pious farm workers cheerfully downing pints when not digging through the peat, living on nothing but potatoes and cabbage, wearing those improbably trendy tweed waistcoats and hats, the charming accents ...
Face it: when we think of Ireland, Hollywood has conspired to give us one of the most fractured fairy-tale kingdoms since Rocky & Bullwinkle. Sure, when stars pop in from the Left Coast for a film shoot on location, it's great for the Irish economy. The pubs fill up, journalists spread out for miles looking for gossip and tales of local color, while locals line up for on-screen work as extras. Never mind that the geniuses who wrote the script in L.A. have no clue about the land or its people. The money's good enough, tourism is up, so it's a wash.
Marie Jones, a native of Belfast, brilliantly punctures our tin-whistle conceit of the Irish in her poignant drama Stones in his Pockets, which is set in and around the set of yet another romantic drama, which is set in an idyllic Irish countryside whose reality is starkly different from the one promoted by the film studio. And when tragedy strikes the village in the middle of filming, Jones makes a point of showing just how cruel the film-making machinery can be.
Stones in his Pockets is also an actor's dream, because it calls for two actors to play an entire village of roles, American as well as Irish. Anchoring the evening's proceedings are Charlie and Jake, locals hired as extras and largely in it for the money-although Charlie's clearly caught the film bug and keeps trying to stuff his first movie script into the visitors' hands.
When not performing as submissive, simple 'locals,' Charlie and Jake offer a wry play-by-play of both the film and its clueless American crew; everyone from the arrogant director to a variety of locals to the sincere but volatile Hollywood starlet playing the romantic lead. Through deftly-managed changes in posture, dress and voice the Keegan Theatre team of Matthew J. Keenan (Jake) and Josh Sticklin (Charlie), you see how much more film-worthy real people are-you know, the fuzzy ones in back, laboring wordlessly while the picture-perfect stars moon away in sharp focus.
As the star-struck, ambitious Charlie, Josh Sticklin is just the sort of idealistic youngster that, well, movies are made of; his subsequent turn as a moderately self-absorbed starlet laboring to learn a proper Irish dialect is equally priceless. Matthew J. Keenan's Jake is more grounded but far from resigned to his life in the village, and his ability to switch gears to become other characters-including the Oldest Surviving Film Extra on the Planet-is a master class in itself.
Keenan has also designed the set here - very much in keeping with the by-your-bootstraps approach of the show's two characters. A bare stage is inflected with crates for film properties, while a large projection screen subtly reminds us of the stark contrast between film and reality. The film vs. reality conflict has some hilarious moments, especially when Jake and Charlie refuse to behave like 'real Irish' in front of the camera on cue. The opening and closing 'pastoral' film scenes, featuring a herd of cows doing their thing, are charming-even more so when it becomes clear the film stock was left deliberately un-edited. The spartan visuals are accented nicely by Dan Deiter's sound design, and Megan Thrift's lighting is as intricate, swift and effective as the actors' character changes she tracks onstage.
Director Abigail Isaac Fine has given audiences a worthy production of Jones' famous play, perhaps the greatest sign of her talent being her ability to render the many shifts in character and location so seamless that the audience can't help but go on the whole journey, nearly effortlessly. Stones in his Pockets is a treat, and yet another reminder (if any were needed) of the humane wit behind contemporary Irish theatre.
Running Time: 1 hour and 50 minutes, with one intermission.
Audience Advisory: Stones in his Pockets features an extensive discussion of suicide.
Production Photo, from left to right: Matthew J. Keenan as Jake, Josh Sticklin as Charlie. Photo by Cameron Whitman.