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So what do cows have to do with a Hollywood movie being shot in County Kerry, Ireland? And why is one staring back at us from the cover of the program? The answer to the first question is, nothing. The answer to the second is, everything. But the only two people in the entire town who can tell us exactly how are Charlie and Jack, two extras in the film being shot, an epic Irish historical called The Quiet Valley. They are the two principals in a 25-character show now onstage at Theatre in the Park titled Stones in His Pockets, presented by Actors Comedy Lab and TIP.
Charlie (David Bartlett) meets Jack (Tony Hefner) on the first day of shooting. The two are only a pair out of a flock of local residents hired to give the film “local color,” and they are more than happy to be there; the job pays 40 quid a day. But we know, as audience members, that the two are not the only characters in this work; these two exceptional actors recreate a total of 25 different people as they progress through the play, a rollicking comedy that suddenly brings us up short at the end of Act 1. That’s when we learn the reason for the play’s title, Stones in His Pockets.
Actors Comedy Lab and Theatre in the Park probably could not have come up with a better pair to pull off this two-man show. Bartlett has been doing comedy all his life, not only onstage, but also as a professional clown with a now-world-wide following, “Mr. Rainbow.” Hefner is also a master at the multi-tasking job of playing a multitude of characters in the same show; he just finished his latest adventure in that arena this summer in ACL’s Comic Potential. These two together bring a score-plus of characters alive onstage, with marvelous split-second timing, acutely identifiable characters, a comedic demeanor that is indefatigable, and an ability to go from knee-slapping hilarity to unnerving severity with a simple change of expression.
Rod Rich, ACL’s perennial director, manages to set these two up so that we, as observers, can see more than just the two of them onstage at the same time. This is done with music, lighting, creative staging, and a troupe of people we only see the shoes of: all those extras the film company has hired. But even though playwright Marie Jones does bring us up very short in the last few seconds of Act I, most of this show is one laugh-line after another, and this pair pulls them off with alacrity. “Comedy” does not begin to describe the humor of this Irish laugh-fest.
Part of the fun of this show is to watch each character “enter” and “exit.” Since neither Bartlett nor Hefner ever leaves the stage, watching this process is something akin to watching a film script; one second a character is there and the next, he isn’t. Someone else has appeared in his place. It is enough to give any one actor pause, if he is foolish enough to stop and think about it. Nevertheless, these two go about it as if they were born to it, and make it look easy.
What makes this comedy Irish is that the comedy comes from the fact that there is desperation all around these characters, from Charlie and Jack themselves, to Finn, a buddy of Jack’s, and Sean, a younger fellow who would very much like to be in the film. Unfortunately, he is a bit too much of a pothead to be eligible. At one point, Sean (Hefner) tries to approach Caroline Giovanni (Bartlett), the star of the film, in the local pub; Giovanni has the poor wastrel tossed out on his ear by her bodyguard. Everyone in town, it seems, witnesses this humiliation. What happens next is what brings us all up short, and it is also the reason behind that kerchiefed cow that looks soulfully back at us from the front of the program. That cow is the brainstorm of Charlie and Jack, who themselves write a screenplay in Act II.
This joint production of Actors Comedy Lab and Theatre in the Park is an absolute delight, and one well worth seeing. Superb action, well-controlled characters, and a typical Irish comedy/drama setting make this work one to put on your list for holiday viewing. But be quick and make your reservations now; the show only runs through this Sunday.
Actors Comedy Lab and Theatre in the Park present Stones in His Pockets Wednesday-Saturday, Dec. 8-11, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Dec. 12, at 3 p.m. at TIP, 107 Pullen Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina. $15 Friday-Saturday and $12 Sunday, Wednesday, and Thursday, with a $2 discount to TIP season members and A Christmas Carol ticket holders. 919/831-6058. Actors Comedy Lab: http://www.actorscomedylab.com/next.html. Theatre in the Park: http://theatreinthepark.com/pages/co-productions/co-productions.htm [inactive 3/05]. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/Show.asp?id=10511.
by Robert W. McDowell
Raleigh, NC-based Actors Comedy Lab and Theatre in the Park will present a joint production of Stones in His Pockets, a zany two-character comedy written by Belfast, Northern Ireland playwright Marie Jones and directed by ACL co-founder Rod Rich, Dec. 3-12 at TIP. The show debuted in West Belfast in 1996, and a 1999 Belfast production of Stones in His Pockets transferred to the West End, opening in May 2000 at the New Ambassadors Theatre in London, where the play won the 2000 London Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Comedy and the 2001 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy.
The show’s 1999 Belfast cast of Seán Campion and Conleth Hill —playing two rural Irish lads who are hired as extras for a big-budget Hollywood film to be shot on location in County Kerry — opened the show in London. (The film is called The Quiet Valley to evoke memories of The Quiet Man, director John Ford’s 1952 masterpiece staring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara). Messrs. Campion and Hill were nominated for the 2001 Tony Award® for Best Actor in Play after the show made its Broadway debut on April 1, 2001 at the John Golden Theatre, where it played 198 performances.
The ACL/TIP presentation of Stones in His Pockets will star Actors Comedy Lab stalwart Tony Hefner as Jake Quinn and veteran Durham actor David Bartlett, a.k.a. Mr. Rainbow the Clown, as Charlie Conlon. In the Greater Tuna tradition, Messrs. Hefner and Bartlett will also play a veritable smorgasbord of other meaty roles — earthy Irish townspeople and spoiled-rotten Tinseltown types — who experience a hilarious culture clash during the making of the film in rural Ireland.
Director Rod Rich says, “It took seeing this show twice to decide to do it. For one thing, it’s murder to read — the entire play is performed by two people, and the script isn’t terribly helpful about who these characters are or where they are, so you have to figure that out as you go, or keep flipping back to the front of the book to the character descriptions. All in all, [it was] fairly intimidating, so it took me a year to decide it might be fun to tackle.
"The show that did it for me,” Rich claims, “was a production we saw in London last February. The two guys just looked like they were having so much fun that it was hard to resist!”
Rich declares, “This is no play for wimps! Unlike other two-actor shows like Greater Tuna, there’re no costume changes or even entrances and exits to delineate that a new character has just appeared, so it all has to be done by acting. The stakes are high: if the audience can’t follow the story with all the transitions and starts to fall behind, it’s going to be a very long night at the theater.”
In thumbnailing the plot, Rich says, “An American film crew is shooting a movie in a small town in Ireland, and practically the entire populace is performing as extras in the movie. Two of the extras, Jake (Tony Hefner) and Charlie (David Bartlett), have failed in everything they’ve tried to date, so they’re trying to chart their future in film amidst encounters with a condescending film crew, a dotty director, and the diva movie star who likes to ‘go native,’ and local events that threaten to spark a mutiny among the extras.”
In addition to director Rod Rich, who shares sound-design duties with Rowell Gormon, the show’s production team includes Rich’s wife, Nancy Rich, as choreographer; and TIP technical director Stephen J. Larson as set and lighting designer.
Rod Rich says the play’s set is a “low stone wall, a trunk, and the sky of Ireland projected behind”; its lighting is simple (“Lights up, lights down”); and its costumes are nothing fancy: “Work clothes. Comfortable. Simple.”
Rich also claims, “This is a virtuoso piece for two actors. Since there’s very little technical support by design, this play is a real high-wire act where [David Bartlett and Tony Hefner] have to create almost 20 characters; evoke the locations; and, bless them, even dance.
"The story-telling is all in Stones in His Pockets,” Rich says. “We need to make sure that an audience understands what we’re doing from the first transition on, and can get caught up in the lives of our characters. So, character definition has been crucial, as has been working out a physical language to transition to each character so the audience always understands when a new character is coming on stage.”
Rod Rich notes, “While the examples set by previous shows I’d seen were helpful, those shows were all done on a proscenium stage, whereas the layout at TIP is more of a thrust arrangement. This meant working out new ways to ‘morph’ between characters. While that was part of the fun, it also meant weeks of experimentation, trying out new blocking — by the end of the rehearsal period, learning the blocking was almost as tricky as memorizing the lines.”
In reviewing the show’s critically acclaimed London run, which included more than 1,000 performances, The Guardian wrote, “[Stones in His Pockets] is clearly magical, this comedy by Belfast writer, Marie Jones, dealing as it does with myths, memories, class and sex, with two actors who create a whole world on stage. Jones’s subject, the disruptive impact of a film crew on a small Irish community, may not be brand new — it was the theme of Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan — but what is refreshing is her wide awake view of Hollywood cultural colonialism.... In the end, Jones’s play is a passionate defence of daily reality in a world crazed by celebrity and dominated by the hackneyed tastes of the movie tsars. Even if her conclusion has a strained, feelgood quality, she has a ruthlessly sharp eye for the effects of cinematic imperialism. But much of the evening’s joy comes from the dazzling virtuosity of the two performers [who] catch the absurdity of movie making as the extras react to non-existent events and yet execute an Irish reel with panache. The play itself not only sends up the delirious fantasy of film, it becomes a moving and heartfelt tribute to the imaginative power of live performance.”
Actors Comedy Lab and Theatre in the Park present Stones in His Pockets Friday-Saturday, Dec. 3-4, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Dec. 5, at 3 p.m.; Wednesday-Saturday, Dec. 8-11, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Dec. 12, at 3 p.m. at TIP, 107 Pullen Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina. $15 Friday-Saturday and $12 Sunday, Wednesday, and Thursday, with a $2 discount to TIP season members and A Christmas Carol ticket holders. 919/831-6058. Actors Comedy Lab: http://www.actorscomedylab.com/next.html. Theatre in the Park: http://theatreinthepark.com/pages/co-productions/co-productions.htm [inactive 3/05]. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/Show.asp?id=10511.