Luck of the Irish
by Jim Murchison
Friday evening Ottawa's 2012/2013 season kicked off with Marie Jones award-winning play Stones in His Pockets directed by John P Kelly. As is traditional on opening night the director came out to thank the crowd for their support flanked by season coordinator David Whitely. As the two spoke it seemed to me that Kelly was particularly subdued this evening. He may be pacing himself and with good reason. He will be directing four shows this season; three at the Gladstone and another Marie Jones play at GCTC and as exciting as that may be, it is definitely daunting.
The scenic design by Merike Olo is very simple but effective. A long mural depicts the view of the Blasket Islands as seen from County Kerry on the southwest coast of Ireland where the action is set. Underneath the mural is a row of shoes stretching along the width of the stage that gives us the hint that the two actors have many shoes to fill. The only other set piece is a steamer trunk that holds costume pieces and serves a multifunctional role as a podium, bar counter or casket as needed.
The play examines the erosion of rural life, the pursuit of the American dream and its innate plasticity; and the desperation of people trapped by their circumstance and their own bad decisions. A film crew has set up in County Kerry and employed almost all of the locals as extras. The catalytic moment occurs when a disillusioned young man drowns by walking into the sea with stones in his pockets. From that moment the divide between the town's agenda and the film's dispassionate bottom line are exposed like a raw nerve.
Zach Counsil as Charlie Conlon is a sex mad, star struck dreamer with aspirations to become a screenwriter and Richard Gélinas as Jake Quinn is a disillusioned nomad returning to Ireland because of a bout of homesickness and the discovery that sometimes the grass on the other side of the valley is brown. The actors play the local characters with gritty realism and the Hollywood types all have the quality of caricature. This is appropriate and by Kelly's design. It sets up the pretence of the virtual reality of film against the actual reality of the common man.
The actors play their main characters with truth and honesty but the other characters are great fun. Counsil as femme fatale starlet Caroline Giovanni is hilarious. For a large man he moves very well but he would never be mistaken for Katie Perry so he uses his gracefulness to camp it up. Overall Gélinas was a little more sure-footed than Counsil on this night. His assistant director Aisling is played with a foppish assertiveness that instantly screams you are on set and ready to roll.
I have a personal bias for ensemble pieces over one-person shows and two-handers. Having said this, the two actors are very adept at switching characters, keeping their postures and accents distinct so that the characters never blur, nor does the story. The costume changes are perfunctory and have really nothing to do with the characters; more with the journey. That's fine, for if they had different costume pieces for each character the pace would suffer badly and interfere with the play. I did find the Steven Lafond sound a little fuzzy and distorted which detracted from the pastoral Irish setting.
Ultimately the message that the pursuit of dreams is founded in belief in yourself was effectively delivered. I was particularly impressed with the way the play demonstrated that real and compelling stories are frequently lost because of a lack of "marketability". It would be very nice to believe that HL Mencken was wrong when he said "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the (American) public." Sigh.
I think that this is a good building block for another promising season of theatre in Ottawa. Long live the dreamers.