East Bay Express: Sticks and Stones

Two Black-box theatre companies use their resources wisely

By Rachel Swan

October 21, 2009

Oakland’s similarly small-scale, equally ambitious group TheatreFIRST began its season last week with Stones in His Pockets, Marie Jones’ comedy about two extras working on a Hollywood film set in Ireland. Stones is partly about the friendship that grows between Charlie Conlon (Clive Worsley) and Jake Quinn (Kevin Karrick) as they toil on the set of The Quiet Valley for a mere forty pounds a day. It’s partly about a cruel form of imperialism, as the Americans capitalize on the dreams and delusions of working-class Irishmen. It’s partly about the permeability between film and real life: Not only do Charlie and Jake become accomplices in their own exploitation; they also try to shill their own script to the directors. On a more abstract level, it’s a play about working very hard toward something, even when the benefits are illusory.

Stones in His Pockets is apropos for a theatre company that appears to have suffered its own share of setbacks in the past year. Now under the artistic directorship of Michael Storm, TheatreFIRST recently moved into the Marion E. Geene Theatre inside Oakland School of the Arts, which will hopefully become its new home. The space is still quite raw but big enough to install a proscenium stage or do theatre in the round, and equipped with an incredibly clean sound system. It’s ideal for a play like Stones, which calls for a spare set (a dresser, a stool, a wooden chest, and a small bench) and a two-man cast (the actors share fifteen parts). The play could easily fall apart in less-capable hands, but Worsley and Karrick are old hats at this. Worsley, in particular, knows how to switch bodies (and genders) with ease. Not only does he play blue-collar Charlie and a host of other blokes; he also transforms himself into the fey Hollywood actress Caroline Giovanni — and manages to do so without looking too much like a man in drag.

Stones in His Pockets and So Many Ways to Kill a Man both succeed on the merits of a few good actors, deft stage direction, and rigorous imagination. Above all, they milk their source material without forcing any political themes that aren’t already in the text. Having that sense of restraint is a feat in itself.