Irish play blends humor and history

Actors Fred Arsenault and Euan Morton play all 15 characters in "Stones in His Pockets" a play by Irish playwright Marie Jones.
Actors Fred Arsenault and Euan Morton play all 15 characters in "Stones in His Pockets" a play by Irish playwright Marie Jones. Photo by Maria Zepeda.

In “Stones in His Pockets,” the newest play at the Yale Repertory Theatre, only two actors portray a whirlwind of characters.

Opening Friday, “Stones in His Pockets” tells the story of a rural Irish town transformed by the arrival of a Hollywood film crew searching for a rustic backdrop. The play, written by the Irish playwright Marie Jones, centers around two Irish locals who become extras in the cast, following their encounters with a variety of personalities. The show’s two actors — Fred Arsenault and Euan Morton — play 15 different characters, from a 20-something Hollywood starlet to a villager in his 70s.

Dramaturg Sarah Krasnow DRA ’14 said the show’s storyline explores themes relevant to Ireland’s history, such as the identity struggles postcolonial nations face.

Director Evan Yionoulis ’82 DRA ’85 said that by using only two actors to portray such a wide range of characters, the play showcases the transformational nature of acting and theater itself.

“It makes the audience part of the making of the imaginative world,” Yionoulis said. “If you had 15 actors instead, it would be quite different.”

Yionoulis said the play also shows how some members of the film crew romanticize Ireland, while highlighting the nation’s long history of dispossession. She said one of the most challenging parts of staging the play has been to keep the two main characters’ relationship at its core.

“The idea is that they go from being extras in their own story to being initiators and in control,” Yionoulis said. “That transformation is the hallmark of the whole piece.”

The humor of the play is based largely on puns, misunderstandings and other verbal gymnastics between the two actors, Morton explained. The pair worked with a coach to develop a plethora of accents, including separate ones for characters from Northern Ireland, Dublin and County Kerry, where the play is set. Arsenault said performing with a cast of only two makes the show significantly more “actor-driven” than many plays, since he and Morton control the pace and need to “click” for the play to go on smoothly.

Morton added that being onstage for almost the entire duration of the performance makes the show an exhausting experience. The play requires great elasticity from the actors by having them constantly jump from one character to the next with very little break, Arsenault said.

“You take a deep emotion, have it, drop it and go on to the next. You can’t sit and wallow in it,” Arsenault said. “In a weird way, it’s how things happen. I feel like I’m living up there.”

Arsenault said that with the play’s many colorful personalities, it would have been easy to turn the show into “an SNL skit.” But despite the play’s comedic elements, “Stones in His Pockets” turns darker in its second half, and the team worked to move beyond the stereotypes in each character to reveal both the truth and the humor found in human struggle, Yionoulis said.

“Like any good comedy it’s based on tragedy. … You can’t help but see the humor in death, in failure,” Morton said.

Scenic and Projection Designer Edward Morris DRA ’13 said the production team realized early on that they couldn’t “put picturesque Ireland onstage.”

Because “Stones in His Pockets” is such a fast-paced play, the team strove to minimize scene changes by creating just a single set, Morris said. The stage is draped with artificial rolls of grass to create the effect of the rolling green hills most associate with Ireland. A muslin backdrop with a blue gradient serves as a projection surface for moving images and lighting effects, indicating mood and time of day throughout the show, Morris said.

“Stones in His Pockets” runs at the Rep through Feb. 16.

Correction: Jan. 23

A previous version of this article misidentified Edward Morris DRA ’13 as the scenic and production designer for “Stones in His Pockets.” It also misidentified the gender of Evan Yionoulis ’82 DRA ’85. 

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