Cedar City • "Stones in His Pockets" begins with a mundane order for lemon meringue pie on a stage set backed by 12 pair of empty shoes. Then, in seconds flat, it evolves into a vertiginous display of theater as actors David Ivers and Brian Vaughn embody 15 characters with all the skill of matadors dodging a herd of charging bulls.
Irish playwright Marie Jones' drama about two extras on the set of a Hollywood film being shot in County Kerry circa 1998 is a pushy creature on first impression. It seems custom-built for actors fond of showing off their talents, and Utah Shakespeare Festival co-artistic directors Ivers and Vaughn don't disappoint. Like master improvisers filling in the silence between riffs of their main characters, Jake and Charlie respectively, they transform in quicksilver flight and measured tempo into the other characters.
In the play's first 15 minutes, it might be tempting to label Ivers and Vaughn a couple of brash show-offs. Thankfully, their craft is so tight you cease paying attention to their skill and instead fall to the charms of the story.
Every role from American film star Caroline Giovanni to the morose young dreamer Sean and old hand local actor Mickey, an extra whose work stretches back to John Ford's 1952 film "The Quiet Man" with John Wayne gets a turn. So, too, does Sean's teacher Brother Gerard, the demanding but clueless California director Clem Curtis, and accent coach John.
Similar to keeping up with the shifts in time and voice in William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, Jones' play is at times exhausting, but it settles into its own soon enough as its characters joke, argue, and share their dreams and fears. By play's end, the story defends the Irish spirit against crass commercial stereotype, while ingeniously subverting the notion of storytelling.
Jake, played by Ivers, and Charlie, played by Vaughn, are two Irish actors working the rounds as bit players for a U.S. production of the film, "The Quiet Valley." They cajole, cavil, and trade rumors of second cousins circulating in their small village. If they haven't made it big, they're at least earning "40 quid" a day and having fun.
But both have bigger dreams in mind. For Charlie, it's a script he's trying to pawn on the big-time film industry players circling about. Both have their eyes on film star Giovanni, but only Jake gets inside her trailer digs to help refine her Irish accent and pass off Seamus Heaney's poetry as his own.
"You underestimate me," she tells him, revealing a depth of knowledge of contemporary Irish poetry that, at the same time, can't mask her smug condescension. "I'm not here to exploit the land. I understand it."
"It always works on Irish girls," Jake responds, swallowing his pride.
Circling Jones' play is the familiar plot of back-woods Irish trying to escape the village bog for the big time. Some, like Jake and Charlie, laugh and soldier on. Others, like young Sean Harkin, get crushed by the weight of his dreams when he drowns in a drunken stupor "stones in his pockets" after being spurned by Giovanni in the neighborhood pub, then thrown out for all the village to see.
The clash between natives and outsiders who think they "know" the Irish is a tension the play wonderfully exploits. In the case of young Harkin's death, it's all too sad. For Jake and Charlie, it's what animates them joyfully toward their next realization.
"Stones in His Pockets" reaches its zenith in a rousing ending as Jake and Charlie act their Hollywood parts as poetic, hardscrabble Irishmen fully aware they're being used, but also aware they've got the upper-hand.
The mystery that lingers after the play is why Jones wanted to squeeze 15 characters into two actors. "It's a good question," Ivers said in a brief, post-premiere interview outside the Randall L. Jones theater, "but one you need to figure out."
'Stones in His Pockets'
Utah Shakespeare Festival production mixes Irish whimsy, tragedy and a trace of lunacy converge as two actors perform 15 roles in Marie Jones' marvelous drama of triumph over personal fate and typecasts.
When • Reviewed Saturday, Sept. 29; continues through Oct. 26; Tuesday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m., with select 2 p.m. matinees.
Where • Randall L. Jones Theatre, 315 W. Center St., Southern Utah State University campus, Cedar City
Info • $28-$64; at www.bard.org, or 800-PLAYTIX or 435-586-7878.
Running time • Two hours with 10-minute intermission.