New Century Theatre, Theatre 14 at Smith College. Directed by Ed Golden
Invariably, Ed Golden produces fine, clear results as a director. Here, he had two first-rate actors to guide through this demanding and satisfying play: Sam Rush, producing director of NCT, and Buzz Roddy, a veteran actor. They are very well cast and superbly well matched.
I saw this play first at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, London (the most Irish of London districts). It was a transfer from Dublin (the Gate or the Abbey, I don’t remember which). It made a big hit there and transferred to the Duke of York’s (as I remember), in the West End, where it played for months. It was a fine choice for NCT: a deeply engaging play for two actors to enact a whole raft of parts, to much good comic effect, while at the same time a sobering leitmotif of despair over the drabness and life-denying quality of Irish life persists through to the end. I wrote about this play when I first saw it, and so I won’t go into much detail here about the work itself. But it’s important to note the extent to which this is truly an actor’s play — actors’, I should say, because it depends for its success on the abilities of two performers to put on masks of a dozen or so characters each and to do so in rapid succession. In this production the only property is a coat rack, downstage left, with a few shirts, hats, and other items of clothing hanging on it, and two pairs of shoes at its base, one pair for each actor. Oh, and two plain, wooden chairs, painted black, carried on by the actors at the start. Upstage, projected on a screen, is a full-scale image of a western Ireland scene, reminiscent of the ring of Kerry (there is a reference to the Blaskett Islands in the text of the play). The Dingle peninsula, we might think. Later images are of increasing numbers of cows — a reference to the school-boy’s essay written by the young man who later fills his pockets with stones to weigh him down as he walks into the water to drown himself, having suffered more humiliation than he can bear at the hands of the Hollywood actress who is the star of the film company on location in Kerry and hiring local people as extras — locals who are beset by dreams of stardom that might take them forever out of the cruel poverty and pointless existence ignored by the producers that hire them.
As I was saying, the two actors transform themselves into all the parts necessary to create the ensemble, working from their base characterizations of Jake Quinn (Sam Rush) and Charlie Conlon (Buzz Roddy). The creations were perilously close to caricature, because of the exigency of needing to create a clear, unambiguous profile that in some cases has to be put on and then doffed again in a matter of seconds. This is done by a turn in place, a movement of the arm or turn of the head; occasionally a retreat to the coat rack occurs for a swift change of shirt or shoes; more frequently, a rounding of one of the chairs, moving up stage, and then in the same motion an “entrance” upstage of the chair as the new character.
It made me realize anew how much I like plays that are so inherently dramatic and theatrical that they would not succeed in adaptation to some other genre. No successful film could be made of Stones in his Pockets, the swift, incessant role-changing by only two actors is so much a part of the very fabric of meaning. And there is also a comic irony implicit in the fact that this is a play about making a film. And, what’s more, this very premise carries the central thematic of the play’s burden: this is a play about people with dreams of love, of greatness, of extrication from the unbearable shabbiness of daily existence; but the film that is being made is a typical Hollywood fantasy about the Emerald Isle, a travesty of the grim realities that mark the lives of Jake and Charlie and the others who live in this one-pub town. And so the various, contrary attributes of genre itself are made to signify deeply human meanings, even while they remain authentically generic. Beckett does this sort of thing brilliantly. Marie Jones does it in her own way as well.
Thus, a fine, enjoyable evening in the theatre, for an audience that was not as large as it could have been. Subscriptions to NCT are down, it was indicated at the July board meeting (I am a member of the board), and revenues are not as good as they need to be. We can hope that word-of-mouth will add to the audience, as the season of four plays reaches its mid-point.