A year ago, I would have been surprised if you’d have told me that the first show I’d see in 2010 would be staged at a correctional facility. I would have been even more surprised if you’d told me that the show would feature Steve Epp uttering the line, “For the first time in my life, I believed me!”
Stones in His Pockets, the new production by Ten Thousand Things, is a two-person play written by Marie Jones. Stars Epp and Jim Lichtscheidl are actors of whom one can ask almost anything, but it turns out to be too much even for them to find real emotion in a script that satirizes one tired cliché (worthy but struggling commoners redeemed by a visitor from afar) only to replace it with another (worthy but struggling commoners redeemed by their own sudden realization that a better life is theirs for the taking).
The performance I saw took place on Tuesday afternoon at the Ramsey County Correctional Facility; the show’s public run will begin on January 15 at Open Book. One of the reasons for TTT’s policy of keeping sets minimal and performing at full house illumination is so that they can bring their productions to audiences like the men I saw the show with on Tuesday. The only element that qualifies as being part of any “set” in Stones in His Pockets is a single fist-size stone, occasionally passed between the actors. (It’s not often you see a director have her entire set literally handed to her, as happened to Michelle Hensley before the performance began on Tuesday. “You don’t want to leave this just lying around,” cautioned a guard.)
Over the course of the two-act show, Epp and Lichtscheidl play over a dozen characters between them (in the program, the characters are themselves credited to characters, a conceit the significance of which only becomes clear at the play’s conclusion). The plot concerns Charlie (Lichtscheidl) and Jake (Epp), two local extras on the set of a Hollywood movie being filmed in Ireland. The visiting filmmakers are portrayed in broad caricature, as clueless cash-hounds who care only about their multimillion-dollar production and don’t appreciate the irony of paying poor villagers £40 a day to play poor villagers. When a local man dies under tragic circumstances, the villagers—led by Charlie and Jake—have to convince the filmmakers to pause production for the man’s funeral.
|stones in his pockets, playing january 15-31 at open book. for tickets ($25) and information, see tenthousandthings.org.|
The play presents itself as a hard-nosed look at the gap between Hollywood dreams and on-the-ground reality, but the theme of learning to love who you are rather than who you wish you were is as hackneyed as the trope Jones is criticizing. Even the most tired themes can be revived with the right treatment—after all, there’s a reason they’re used so often—but this is not it. The play concludes with a series of get-it-all-out dialogues in which one character tells another how-it-really-is; what-the-real-problem-with-you-is; what-you-don’t-know-about-me, and so on. The movie-within-a-play-within-a-play concept is potentially interesting, but without any dramatic momentum to carry them, none of the concluding revelations pack much of a punch. (As an audience, here’s one way inmates differ from non-inmates: they’re less shy about turning around and asking you when the show is going to be over.)
Epp and Lichtscheidl are among the area’s top actors, and each have in recent months carried one-man shows (Epp with The House Can’t Stand and Lichtscheidl with Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol), so it’s really hard to imagine a better cast for this play. Given the material, though, I think I might have enjoyed the production more with an intentionally bad cast who would really rough the show up and deliver the soap-opera dialogue with Telemundo-style histrionics. No doubt, Epp and Lictscheidl make the most of the play’s funny lines, but the script’s humor is so toothless that casting these two pros is like hiring Tim McKee to microwave a TV dinner.