More than three decades ago, film director John Huston -- who so loved Ireland that he became an Irish citizen -- said, "A price must be paid when you turn a country into a tourist resort." Thirty years later, that tourist resort known as the Emerald Isle also has become one humongous film set. And not just for movies whose plots occur in Ireland: Steven Spielberg, for instance, shot Saving Private Ryan's D-Day invasion on a beach in County Wexford.
But there is a price to be exacted when brutish movie companies -- like passing armies in the Crusades of old -- ravage the land and exploit their hosts. Stones in His Pockets, the current offering at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, is a delightfully wry yet ultimately affecting comedy-drama about paying that price. As staged here, the play and the production add up to a rare evening of theater perfection.
This Irish script by Marie Jones is primarily concerned with two extras who are living the life of O'Riley on a Hollywood production in County Kerry (where Ryan's Daughter and Far and Away, among others, were shot). Amid the tumult of filmmaking, Jake Quinn and Charlie Conlon are as anonymous as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern -- and as interchangeable. During the course of the evening, two actors enact fifteen different roles, including the film's foolish director, his harried assistant and a glamorous American movie star who can't find her accent (a character surely inspired by Julia Roberts in Michael Collins).
Despite the stunt-like format, this is not Greater Tuna Goes to Ireland. Jones has written a substantive, acutely observed play. In addition to using all the accurate phrases ("checking the gate," "Settle!"), her play captures the Neverland aura of a movie on location. A location film set has nothing to do with reality; it becomes a society unto itself, where the most outrageous behavior is condoned. Here, when a local tragedy intrudes upon this fantasy-in-progress (a youth who was rejected as an extra drowns himself in the sea with the aid of stones in his pockets), moviemaking becomes a metaphor for America itself. What began as a wicked satire ever so gently begins to encroach upon Brian Friel territory: The locals are asked to distinguish between love of their own land (a land where "imagination can be a damned curse") and their love affair with America, which for too many is as illusory as a giant image on a silver screen.
As Charlie and Jake (and thirteen others), Joe Hickey and Timothy McCracken are nothing less than astonishing. As you watch the production, distance yourself from the action just long enough to appreciate what these two actors are required to do: the numerous characters; the transitions, from nationality to nationality, from gender to gender, from youth to old age; the lack of costumes or props with which to help them out. This is acting in its purest form, and neither Hickey nor McCracken falters for so much as a second.
The show has been shepherded by first-time Rep director Paul Barnes. I have no clue as to what he did, except maybe everything. But whatever he did or didn't do, his production is funny and sad and fluid and completely involving. And don't worry about the Irish accents: Barnes has seen that they're not so thick that you can't follow what's being said. The ingenious scenic design by Michael Ganio transforms the Rep stage into a frame of film. By evening's end viewers might well experience an almost Pirandello-like sense that they've not been watching a play at all; rather, they too have been extras in the movie. But of course they haven't. This is theater, pure and simple, thought-provoking and pristine.