Berkeley Daily Planet:TheatreFIRST Makes Return Throwing 'Stones'

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet

Thursday October 22, 2009

On a mostly-bare set—a couple of chairs at skewed angles across the stage, a cabinet with a broadbrimmed hat and a cap on the shelves and clothing on hangers at the sides—two men pose, seeming to lurch together as Irish music strikes up to open TheatreFIRST’s production of Marie Jones’ Stones in his Pockets—the first production in the company’s return to downtown Oakland.

The two begin a dense dialogue, one at first asking for lemon meringue pie, but for his mate, then talking up someone on the run, how they were dressed, and that “They’ll check on Polaroid who had on what.” The glib, funny, strung-along duet finally settles—or boils—down: “You know that man’s famous?”—as “the last surviving extra from The Quiet Man” gets pointed out—and we’re on location in Ireland with the locals called in for color, the American starlet with the Italian surname given a dialect lesson, a joke between production team members on set that proves prophetic: “What do you call a Kerryman with brains? … Dangerous!” (To the puzzled reply, “I don’t get that,” a smug “You will!”)

The life of the shoot unfolds before us—and the life of the town, extras and crew mingling in the pub as the stars make an entrance and the locals waffle between wisecracks and acting starstruck.

The counterpoint to the “hectic compression” of the filmmaking scene presented is that all of it is performed by the two actors, which not only ups the ante of nervous energy considerably but also allows a different kind of storytelling and theatricality, vaudevillized maybe, but not the kind of extended comedy sketch-iness we’ve become accustomed to in live theatre as well as on the tube. Clive Worsley (very familiar to local theatregoers and artistic director of Townhall Theatre in Lafayette) plays Charlie, a hale fellow hawking a script, and Kevin Karrick, his fellow “40-a-day man,” the somewhat more reticent, reflective Jake, just back from a stint in the States he’s a little evasive about.

Peeling off from their funny tête-à-têtes and set-tos, real and merely acted out for effect, one or the other takes on another persona from the film set in a kind of syncopation of the marchtime of the two workbuddy extras. Sometimes it’s a duet, usually just for a moment, of the studio folk rehearsing their own patois and mores.

The effect is delightfully insidious, pulling the audience into the action as it leans back and laughs at and along with the Kerrymen as they’re put through the hoops in repeated takes of cheering for the triumph of the gentry (the A. D. can’t fathom why they’re so halfhearted), a single take of looking tragic (no problem for melancholis such as these) and some well-choreographed yet silly step-dancing.

A quibble from a British online review noted “not enough is revealed about the life of community outside of their roles as extras”—but this is the strategy by which two actors can carry the play—without either bathos or mere parody, rising at points to genuine touches of satire, relying only on voice and gesture.

More than just a comedy, though in Stones even the grimmest glimpse of the reality of what play-acting, studio glamor and the easy flow of cash, drugs and promises (stated and implied) do to the social landscape, is seen with a humorous slant. Behind both the bravado and the poor mouthing, there’s a kind of aphasia from desperation, driving one young man, ousted from the pub and shamed in front of his neighbors, over the brink … thus the title of the play—and of yet another script within it, cooked up by the buddy act to both put the tragic into perspective and to capitalize a little on it.

With Worsely and Karrick’s deft trouping—something that doesn’t just enhance the script and its setting and theme, but which it demands as its raison d’etat—and Michael Storm’s (TheatreFIRST’s new artistic director) actor’s touch in directing, Stones in his Pockets is an apt start for a new season, a new theatre (in their old stomping grounds) and a new artistic directorship, continuing afresh with the company’s old commitment to socially aware international material, staged with economy and artistry.

And the Marion E. Green Theatre, aka the 19th Street Theatre, around the corner off Telegraph from the main entrance but inside the Fox Theatre building, deserves a mention: Home to the Oakland School for the Arts, with which TheatreFIRST has a collaborative relationship, the black-box theatre realizes TheatreFIRST’s longstanding but often-thwarted commitment to bring real, resident theatre back to the heart of Oakland.

After opening night’s show, spectators celebrating with the cast and the production team in the lobby could be heard commenting on the new urbanity of the neighborhood and the ease in getting there, BART barely a block away. It’s good to have one of this area’s best independent companies back on its own turf, in its own, well-deserved home.