Riverside - I had a blast!
I know that’s a strange way to start a review, but Riverside Theater’s production of Marie Jones' Stones in his Pockets really was such a charming and enjoyable evening of entertainment it seemed the best way to begin.
It is the story of an Irish town in Kerry being overtaken by an American film crew and the casting of many locals as extras as experienced by two of these extras, Charlie Conlon played by Tim Budd and Jake Quinn played by Jim Van Valen. The story requires these actors also transform with limited costume and prop assistance into the supporting characters and other townsfolk including the American superstar actress and Mickey the last surviving extra from The Quiet Man.
Treading carefully so as to not give too much away, I will say that the story is very much about these two men finding a passion and a reason to strive for an identity true to themselves and for the country that is their home. This is framed around a tragic event that polarizes the townsfolk and the film crew against each other. There certainly is a message about the relationship between the entertainment industry and local cultures that it uses while never understanding them and the lure of money and fame. However, the narrative is about Jake and Charlie finding this, not about the playwright telling the audience.
Tim Budd (certainly no stranger to local theater audiences) and Jim Van Valen both have the full energy, wit, and enthusiasm of master storytellers. It was clear from the opening moments of the play that they had the audience firmly in their grasp and along for ride.
Although the switches between the characters was sometimes so abrupt and without warning, there was never a moment of confusion about which character we were seeing as the actors used their full range of vocal and physical abilities to make it clear. While I will say that at times the need to differentiate these other characters did make them err on the side of caricature, it never got jarring or disruptive and the audience found much to enjoy and laugh about in these characters. There is also a danger in men playing female characters as broadly as this and the quality I can only describe as “Drag-Queenish” did in fact rear its head from time to time. I was, however based on the reactions and energy from the audience, clearly in the minority of people who might have preferred otherwise.
This play walks a very unusual line between comedy and drama and I have to say it took me a while to find not only the balance but why it was skewed so far to the side of humor. It would seem that the playwright, actors and director were staying true to the very idea of an Irish Wake in that one celebrates and finds joy in and around moments of grief.
Tim Budd, Jim Van Valen and director Jody Hovland do an amazing job of making what had to be a demanding and complicated play to produce seem so effortless and fun. Everything that was done and every choice made seemed designed only to serve the story. I can think of no higher praise than to say that everyone in the theater that night seemed to be unselfishly and truly enjoying themselves.
Matthew Brewbaker spent many years as artistic Director of Dreamwell Theatre and has directed and appeared in many Dreamwell Theatre and Iowa City Community Theatre productions. He studied experimental theater at New York University.