backstage (2006-11)

Potatoes Not Included

CBT’s Stones In His Pockets explores cultural exploitation

by Leslie Wylie

Individual nations, like actors, are susceptible to typecasting. Exhibit A: Ireland. The countryside’s velvety-green expanses have launched a thousand, or so it seems, period dramas, each underlined by dingy pubs scenes, a castle or two, and the requisite Enya soundtrack. But the clichés are hardly one-sided. Ireland meets its filmic alter ego in the middle, perpetuating cultural stereotypes by living up to them and, subsequently, marketing them to the rest of the world.

Historically, Hollywood’s major motion picture industry has proven an especially potent consumer. Demand varies, but an average of 15 to 20 movies are filmed in Ireland each year. On a local level, this imported film industry boosts the economy and creates jobs—a single movie may hire up to 200 extras during the main days of filming—but the invasion of lights, cameras and action can come at a price. As images of quiet villages and pastoral landscapes are broadcast outward, residential privacy dissolves. 

Belfast-born playwright Marie Jones explores this parasitic relationship between the glitterati and rural Irish culture with her play, Stones In His Pockets, and resurfaces with a series of unsettling conclusions. First performed in Dublin in 1996, the play made a name for itself at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and has since been translated into multiple languages.

Clarence Brown Theatre’s interpretation, directed by John Feltch, begins as a production company sets up camp in a small community in County Kerry, where an Irish epic, ironically entitled Quiet Valley , is to be filmed. Many of the locals are cast as extras, including two roughshod but starry-eyed townsmen named Charlie Conlon (David Brian Alley) and Jake Quinn (Matthew Detmer). United by their enthusiasm for the task, which pays a stout 40 pounds a day, and a shared daydream of becoming film industry players themselves, they forge a sprightly friendship that ultimately outlasts their admiration for the Hollywood charade.

The disillusionment sets in slowly, ushered along by the actions of an ego-inflated film crew that is motivated largely by dollar signs. Alley and Detmer perform each of the 15 roles, weaving together a laundry list of instantly recognizable characters: the self-possessed leading actress and her stuffy Scottish bodyguard, a money-talks director and his marionette assistants, Charlie and Jake and an assortment of other homegrown locals. The tension comes to a head when Jake’s cousin Sean, a dispirited junkie, fills his Pocketss with stones and drowns himself, but the production company refuses to give the cast of extras the afternoon off to attend the funeral. Finally, and only after the film crew re-images the funeral as an opportunity for self-promotion, the townspeople are permitted to pay their last respects.

Stones In His Pockets employs a minimalist approach to raise a number of issues, ranging from the validity of pipedreams to the morality of cultural invasion in the name of entertainment. The two-man cast, combined with a stark arsenal of props and costumes, paints the exploitative sideshow with a sepia-toned color palate, transferring the emphasis from the acting to the action. Alley and Detmer give fine performances, altering the geometry of their voices to accommodate a number of Irish, Scottish and American accents.

The show takes place in the Ula Love Doughty Carousel Theatre, a theater in the round located next to the main theater, and the intimate full-circle setup further loosens the boundaries between actor and audience. Spectators are close enough to observe almost imperceptible details: spittle-spewing articulations, subtle changes in posture, the actors’ dramatic synchronicity.

The roles couldn’t have been easy to perform. Any foreign attempt to capture the voice—not the accent, but the soul behind it—of the Irish people is a brave feat. It’s a maudlin thing, a kind of deep-set sadness draped in a happy-go-lucky veil, drowned in pints of thick lager, trampled by lively traditional melodies. Here, the presence of a local film company coats that soul with yet another layer of emotional skin, one of hope, excitement, distraction. Some, like Sean, wind up rejecting the skin as falsehood; others buy into its empty promises. Throughout the course of Stones In His Pockets , the layers are peeled back slowly, scene by scene, eliciting an audience reaction that falls somewhere between pain and relief.

Other elements of the play are less subtle. At one point, Charlie and Jake enact an amusing parody of Riverdance , an Irish song ’n’ dance musical that the majority of its native country happens to loathe. In other scenes, the extras are directed to imagine and react to a variety of dramatic scenarios: peasants being evicted from their homes, the hero galloping forth on horseback, the heroine swooning over the hero.

As reality falls away, the townspeople are forced to either embrace or reject the cultural illusion they’ve, in some ways, helped to create. CBT’s production seems to propose that it’s possible, perhaps even healthy, to keep one foot in each camp.

What: Stones In His Pockets