By Christopher Arnott
4:00 PM EST, February 6, 2013
Stones in His Pockets
By Marie Jones. Directed by Evan Yionoulis. Through Feb. 16 at the Yale Repertory Theatre, corner of Chapel and York streets, New Haven. (203) 432-1234, http://www.yalerep.org
You think you know a show... and then the extraordinary resources and inquisitive minds of Yale have their way with it, and suddenly a whole new world is added to the two worlds already swept up in it.
Stones in His Pockets is a play that worked its way up from small Irish theaters to the fringe festival circuit. There, it really clicked, and led to major productions around the world. One of the practical advantages of the piece is that it requires just two actors to play the dozen-plus roles, and virtually no scenery or props. When the show was done in London and on Broadway, the set consisted of a backdrop of clouds, shoes lined up to represent all the villagers enlisted as extras in the Hollywood movie production that has descended upon the small town in County Kerry where the play takes place, and a couple of small stools.
Of course, Yale doesn't do things minimally. It has design students to teach. The scenic and projection designer (Edward T. Morris), costume designer (Nikki Delhomme), lighting designer (Solomon Weisbard) and sound designer (Matt Otto) are all in the third and final year of their graduate studies at the Yale School of Drama. Production dramaturg Sarah Krasnow, whose contributions to the program include a very useful "pocket guide" to Irish terms and historical references used in the show, plus an amusing guide to real-life Hollywood blockbusters filmed in England) is a second-year YSD student. They have all thought big.
The set is defined by rolls of turf, which are arranged so they can be used as tables, chairs, couches or beds. At the edges of the main playing area are huge pieces of film equipment, such as a light, a stack of wooden platforms and — whoa! — a cherry picker vehicle such as a film director would need to make an elaborate "crane shot." These items aren't accessed during the show. They're just there.
Oh, there is also a gigantic projection screen, 25 feet by 15 feet or so, on which are shown specially made blooper reels from the film production, not to mention footage of dozens of bored cows. There are costume changes (done onstage behind the piles of turf). There's a curved back wall where the green grassy turf-lined stage meets the clean white projection screen, and at one point actor Fred Arsenault rolls down it like Jack & Jill going down the hill.
Does all this largesse help or hinder a show in which the actors have traditionally been the only special effects? Well, there's no question that it affects the pacing, which has been slowed to a Pinteresque ponderance. This is not the whiz-bang quick-change hurly-burly that many productions of Stones in His Pockets become. It's more thoughtful. Scenes are played out gingerly. Characters interact with grace, not grasping. The second act is both darker and deeper than the first, more deliberate and more realistically played. And when a punchline involves the name of the famous Irish poet Seamus Heaney, you have time to register that the bit is being done on a stage that hosted The Cure at Troy, Heaney's adaptation of Sophocles' Philoctetes, in 1998.
Rather than getting smothered by all these trappings (and by late-'90s topical references to video stores, Hugh Grant and Macaulay Culkin which sorely need to be updated) Stones in His Pockets remains sharp and funny. It's a cutting satire about culture clashes, diminished life goals and social obligations. The concept of two actors playing multiple roles completely fits the themes of the story: the characters lie to each other, put on airs, embrace cultural stereotypes and otherwise attempt to disguise their real selves. Or, as one of the more level-headed characters puts it: "Nobody wants to admit to being a dickhead."
Fred Arsenault (who played a supporting role in David Adjmi's Marie Antoinette at the Yale Rep earlier this season) and Euan Morton (the internationally acclaimed actor who originated the role of Boy George in the musical Taboo both in London and on Broadway) work well together. Arsenault's tall and Morton's short, so there's a Mutt & Jeff or Peter Cook/Dudley Moore sensibility to their multi-voiced double act. They dance about each other, breaking into new characters literally at the drop of a hat (or the donning of a hoodie). They play some characters broadly, but the key roles are given well-rounded portrayals. Morton has an extraordinarily convincing female voice and attitude he brings to the film actress Caroline Giovanni; not that weird falsetto we're all used to in such situations but a full-throated husky quaver of a diva. (If Kathleen Turner decides not to do more productions of The Killing of Sister George, get Euan Morton to replace her!)
So ultimately Stones in His Pockets is still about two very busy actors bumping into each other on a stage. But while Marie Jones's incisive and amusing play will continue to be staged in theaters around the country (there've been several notable productions in New England in recent months, and a Boston one at the Lyric Stage is nigh), you'll likely never see it done by a theater with pockets as deep as Yale's.
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