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Godot Is My Co-Pilot

Two Local Actors Propel This Absurdist, Comic Take On Hollywood Invading Rural Ireland

LEER PRESSURE: Stebbins (left) and Nelson talk it out in Stones In His Pockets.

By John Barry | Posted 10/4/2006

Stones in His Pockets

By Marie Jones

At Rep Stage through Oct. 8

Imagine Vladimir and Estragon in the grip of the film industry. Ireland has gone high-tech. The landscape is flooded with tourists and production crews. Godot has pretty much faded from the picture. The Emerald Isle is defined by directors and Hollywood stars who cherry-pick from Seamus Heaney and invite star-struck locals into their trailers to get a taste of the real thing. Of course, when it comes to reality, Hollywood usually gets the upper hand, as some hapless inhabitants of a small scenic town in County Kerry have found out. Fifty years ago, John Wayne's The Quiet Man was filmed there. Now, in high-tech Ireland, scenery is their only commodity. Whenever the merry-go-round of stars, technicians, and directors comes to town, all they can do is squeeze it for all it's worth.

Rep Stage's Stone in His Pockets stars two fairly accomplished Baltimore professionals who also, in their own way, squeeze this play for all it's worth. Bruce Nelson is probably the city's most recognizable male stage presence-or at least he was recognizable until he shed about 20 pounds for this production. (It may just have been the dance scene that did it, but it was a good career move.) Michael Stebbins is the new artistic director of Columbia's Rep Stage, but he hasn't exactly hidden in the wings. He began his tenure last season by starring in a one-person play, Fully Committed. Calling Nelson and Stebbins stage hogs might not be fair, but they aren't shrinking violets. So it's a stroke of good fortune that these two have found one another. As a team, Stebbins and Nelson juggle roles and share the spotlight; neither one comes out on top-or, rather, they both do, because by the end, they've claimed this play as their own.

In Marie Jones' script, that's precisely what the two central characters, Charlie Conlon (Nelson) and Jake Quinn (Stebbins), are trying to do. In the middle of a huge production, a reprise of The Quiet Man, American cultural imperialism is doing to Ireland what the potato famine never could: It's stripping the nation's culture and its people of any sort of identity and turning the entire village into a set of extras. After four decades-one old man, Mickey, proudly refers to himself as the "last surviving extra" from the original movie-the town has been transformed to a huge Potemkin village, supported by whatever team wants to film its next Irish epic.

In this maximalist wasteland-which might be effectively emptier than anything Beckett's characters were up against-Charlie and Jake joke, struggle for dignity, make their bids for the big time, dream, and, finally, drink. Jones could have turned Stones into a deeper excursion into the nature of cultural imperialism but, instead, focuses on two extras who, despite every attempt by the film industry to marginalize them, claim center stage.

It's up to Nelson and Stebbins to make that victory believable. They have heavy loads to carry-in addition to playing Charlie and Jake, Nelson and Stebbins also juggle seven and six other roles, respectively. Among the split-second onstage transformations demanded by the script: Charlie turns into Hollywood starlet Caroline Giovanni; Jake turns into the flamboyantly gay assistant director Aisling and the weathered, whiskey-swilling Mickey. There are plenty more where that came from. By the end of this play, you've been treated to a sizable pantheon of Irish and Hollywood stereotypes-and these two actors revel in them.

The play's title alludes to its grimmer note. Sean Harkin, a 19-year-old Irish lad with a Hollywood dream, finds that he's been declared less than genuine by the production team. He has been reaching for the stars but was rejected as an extra. He fiends for drugs and eventually takes a dive in the lake with his pockets full of stones. The production team wants to film an expensive shoot on the day of Sean's funeral. The town is left in a standoff: Do their loyalties rest with the director or the dead local?

But nothing gets taken too seriously. The characters' skins are so quickly and gracefully shed, thanks in part to director Lee Mikeska Gardner's confident blocking, that, by the end, it turns into a huge Irish wake, complete with dancing, drinking, eye-wiping, hand-wringing, and cheerful, nonstop gabbing. At this conclusion, the characters might not ever get what they want, but they do get the chance to raise a collective middle finger at a world that condescends to them, ignores them, and bullies them into submission. It's a survival strategy that Beckett's Vladimir outlined pretty succinctly 50 years ago: I get used to the muck as I go along. Charlie and Jake don't just get used to it; by the end, in their own way, they relish it.

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