The set consists of only eight objects: on the left and right sides of the stage, two black production cases, and in the center, two movie-set black folding chairs, stamped with “EXTRAS” in white letters. To the far right sits a movie camera. Behind it all stands a projection screen.
Despite the sparse set and dearth of physical props, the Keegan Theatre’s production of Marie Jones’ “Stones in His Pockets” comes to life on the merits of its actors. The minimalism of the technical elements helps dramatic skill shine through, and the few elements physically represented onstage are used to full effect by director Abigail Isaac Fine.
Set in a rural town in Ireland currently inundated by an American film crew, “Stones in His Pockets” examines the clash of cultures between a small town sustained for years by its land and livestock and the glamour and promise of Hollywood and the film industry.
The play centers on two men serving as extras in the film: Jake, played by Matthew Keenan, who is living with his mother after recently returning from a failed attempt to find his fortune in New York, and Charlie, played by Josh Sticklin, who has lost his video rental store after a bigger chain moved into town and travels the country with nothing but a tent. Both characters are intrigued by the promise of the movie business — fame, fortune and, for the extras, forty quid and three meals a day — and both have nowhere else to go.
Keenan and Sticklin are the only actors in the film, but not the only characters: Keenan also plays a drug-addicted teen, a peppy production assistant and Mickey, an old hand at the business of being an extra, while Sticklin shines as a teenager, an over-the-top bodyguard and a Hollywood actress, among others. Keenan also designed the set for the play.
The physicality of the actors and their rapid switching between roles is the strongest part of the play: The moments in which Keenan springs from the hunched-over Mickey to respond as Jake to his own lines are hilarious, and the clear definition brought to each character forestalls any potential confusion.
The few technical elements are used to excellent effect, most notably the camera-and-projector combination. At several points in the show, Charlie and Jake go to it to fulfill their roles as extras —digging turf, cheering, dancing — and the results are projected for the audience to examine with detail. The device highlights the humor of the script without detracting from the skill of the actors, which Fine keeps at center stage.
Despite the darker themes at the heart of the show, “Stones in His Pockets” deserves its label as a tragicomedy. The humorous elements of the show shine through from start to finish.
Some of the humor comes from the stereotypes of the movie business: the aggressive bodyguard, the beleaguered production assistant, the extravagant Hollywood star. Other elements stem from the frank depiction of life in a small Irish town: the ubiquity of cows, the way everyone knows everyone else’s business within minutes.
But most comes from the clash between the two: the American actress with — she insists — Irish heritage, trying to get her accent just right, or Jake attempting to convince her that Seamus Heaney’s poetry is his own. It is the script’s strong humor in the face of sadness combined with the comedic timing of the direction that carries the show and keeps the audience laughing right up to the final curtain.
The Keegan Theatre is in many ways the ideal place to produce “Stones in His Pockets” in the United States.
Originally written in 1996 for a Dublin-based theater company and first performed in Belfast, Ireland, the play focuses on the clash between American and Irish culture, while the Keegan Theatre has been working to bridge the theatrical traditions of the United States and Ireland since 1999. In addition to productions of Irish plays like “Stones in His Pockets” and its Christmas tradition play, “An Irish Carol,” Keegan Theatre tours Ireland almost every year with classic American plays.
This commitment shines through in the production. The strength of the actors, the clear direction and the powerful script bring a complex world to life even with little aid from technical elements — a victory for both minimalist theater and for its audiences.
“Stones in His Pockets” is running at the Keegan Theatre through Oct. 15. Tickets can be purchased online at keegantheatre.com.