Monday, February 18, 2013

Transported to County Kerry - Review of "Stones in His Pockets" at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston

I spent a couple of hours on Sunday afternoon in County Kerry in the Republic of Ireland.  If you had checked the GPS on my iPhone, it would have pegged my geospatial location as Clarendon Street in Boston's Back Bay, inside the performance space of The Lyric Stage Company of Boston.  But, metaphysically, the actors on stage had transported me and the rest of the audience to The Old Sod.

The Lyric has a reputation - not only as Boston's oldest professional theatre company - but as a place where the audience can always expect to see a show of the highest quality.  The long run of successes continues with the current production of "Stones In His Pockets."  Written by Marie Jones, the play is a "madcap story of a rural Irish village turned upside down" by the arrival of a film crew, come to shoot another Hollywood version of a bucolic and stereotypical Irish tale.  The play first appeared in London where it won the Olivier Award for Best New Comedy, and also garnered several Tony nominations when it moved to Broadway.

The conceit of the play is to ask the question: "What would happen if the tables were turned, and the movie were made allowing the 'extras' - the regular people - to tell the story, with the Hollywood stars and directors being turned into bit characters?"  Two young Irishmen bring this conceit to life and to light as the two acts develop.  Jake Quinn is a local from County Kerry, and Charlie Conlon is an interloper who has come down from Belfast in Ulster and has appeared in town to earn the 40 Quid a day that an extra is paid in this film. Phil Tayler plays Jake - and a host of other characters.  Daniel Berger-Jones plays Charlie - and all of the remaining characters.

These two actors deserve their own paragraph here.  Marie Jones chose to write the play so that all of the 17 characters are played by only two actors.  The transformations from one character to another are suggested by lightning-fast changes in costumes (a hat or scarf), dialect, facial features and physical manifestations.  The effect is at first bewildering and then stunning.  In the hands of a less capable Director than Courtney O'Connor or less gifted actors than Tayler and Berger-Jones, the play could be a confusing jumble.  This was not the case yesterday when they performed the play for area critics and an appreciative audience.  Much credit must be given, as well, to dialect coach, Nina Zendejas, who helped to lead the actors through labyrinthine permutations of regional dialects.  To their credit, the actors not only mastered individual voices for the distinct characters, they also created unique facial expressions and postures so that the audience could recognize which character was about to speak even before the actors opened their mouths to utter their lines.  The performances were flawless and memorable.

The title of the play refers to an incident that takes places involving one of the play's "minor characters."  That incident serves to frame the gulf that exists between the Irish townsfolk and the outsiders who have come into town to make a film that will tell a false story.

On Sunday afternoon, audience members were invited to stay for a Post-show Talkback.  It was instructive to hear from a man and woman in the audience who had each grown up in County Kerry.  I recall the woman saying, in essence, "I left Ireland for a better life in America, much like the characters in the play dream about doing someday.  Your play was so well told that it brought me back to my days in County Kerry.  The story is authentic and deeply moving."

Another audience member, who identified himself as "Sven," made the comment that he would have wished to have had an advance description of each of the minor characters, because he spent Act I somewhat confused.  While I can understand his sentiment, I found myself disagreeing fundamentally with him.  As an audience member, I had to do some work and involve myself beyond the level of merely being entertained in order to grasp the shifting characters and identities.  In the end, being forced to do that "work," increased my ability to empathize with the plight of the protagonists who were working hard to survive in two worlds - the hardscrabble Ireland of the play and the dream world of the film that was employing them for a season to play two-dimensional caricatures of themselves.  The end result was that Tayler and Berger-Jones created for us, from the raw material of Jones' script, truly three-dimensional human beings who reached out to ignite a spark of hope in one another and a spark of understanding among the members of the audience.

The play will run at the Lyric through March 16.

Lyric Stage Website - Stones In His Pocket



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