Sunday, January 28, 2024

"Stones in His Pockets" by Theater Latte Da at the Ritz Theater

Every once in a while, Theater Latte Da throws a play on their season schedule and I think - what is this going to be? At one time their tagline was "we don't do musical theater, we do theater musically," and their new production of Stones in His Pockets is a prime example of this. They haven't turned it into a musical (like they did with the classic play Twelve Angry Men, which sounds weird but turned out to be brilliant), but they have turned it into theater musically. Jason Hansen (Twin Cities Theater Bloggers' favorite Music Director for three years running - watch for our interview with him on an episode of Twin Cities Theater Chat coming soon!) has written original music to fill in the spaces and add color and emotion to the story, like a film score played live. I'd never seen this play before, and now that I've seen this production, I can't imagine it without music. Music is so much a part of Irish culture and everyday life, that it seems fitting that there is music in this funny, wistful, tragic, heart-warming, and very Irish little story. See this wholly original Stones in His Pockets (featuring a brilliant comedy duo) at the Ritz Theater in Northeast Minneapolis through February 25. (Recommended dinner-and-a-show pairing: enjoy the food, atmosphere, and Guinness at The Anchor Fish & Chips just down the street.)

Charlie (Tom Reed) and Jake
(Reed Sigmund, photo by Dan Norman)
The play takes place in rural Ireland, where a film crew has descended upon a small town, bringing with it Hollywood stars, business for the local establishments, and work for the locals. Namely, being an extra on the film (something I have a little experience with) for 40 quid a day. Two such extras are Jake Quinn, a local who has recently returned and moved in with his mother after a few years living in America, and Charlie Conlon, who is traveling around Ireland after his small movie rental shop was displaced by a big chain store. They become friends on set and off, as they go out to the pub in the evening, and share dreams (Jake wants to get into the movies for real, Charlie has written a screenplay). When a tragedy happens that affects everyone in the small town, the movie machinery barely slows down, causing the two friends to rethink their priorities and what they want in life. They decide to take things into their own hands and tell their own stories, instead of simply being pawns for the outsiders telling their stories.

a reporter (Reed Sigmund) interviews Caroline Giovanni
(Tom Reed, photo by Dan Norman)
The unique thing about this play is that two actors play more than a dozen characters in the story - old and young, male and female. My friend asked me why they do that, instead of just casting more actors. My response was that it's probably a fun challenge for the actors, and it's definitely fun as the audience to watch them transform into multiple characters with just a few changes in vocals and physicality. I think it also makes it a more intimate and connected story, with just the two people in it, and also more theatrical, more of a storytelling experience than a realistic one. Another reason is that when you have Tom Reed and Reed Sigmund (a comedy duo hereafter known as Tom Reed Sigmund), you don't need any other actors. These two have long been among my favorite #TCTheater actors, the ones I can always count on to crack me up, and whoever decided to pair them together (I believe for the first time) is a genius. 

Tom has been seen on multiple stages around town (although this is his first time with Theater Latte Da), including several solo Fringe Festival shows in which he tells an entire pop culture story (e.g., Game of Thrones or The Hunger Games), playing all of the characters himself. Reed is a longtime company member of Children's Theatre Company, where he believably transforms into such diverse characters as the Grinch and Cinderella's stepsister. Watching the two of them perform the theatrical gymnastics of telling this story is utter joy. In addition to the main characters, Tom is the haughty English director, the spoiled American starlet Caroline Giovanni, and her beefy security guard, while Reed is a young female assistant director in charge of the extras, a troubled young local, and an older experienced extra who loves to tell people he worked on the 1952 John Wayne movie The Quiet Man. In the blink of an eye, with the addition of one simple accessory, they clearly transform into another fully formed character, complete with a different way of walking or sitting, and a different accent, all of which sound gorgeously authentic to my untrained ear, except of course for Caroline's intentionally awful one (thanks to dialect coach Jill Walmsley Zagar). Throughout the course the show, we are treated to multiple specifically hilarious and heart-breaking performances by Tom Reed Sigmund.

assistant directors Aisling (Reed Sigmund) and Simon
(Tom Reed, photo by Dan Norman)
Ten Thousand Things' Marcela Lorca brings that company's signature playful storytelling style to this piece. It's very much like a TTT barebones raw theater kind of show, but with a little more embellishment. Starting with the set that includes 2-D painted backdrops of the green Irish countryside running all of the way from the lobby to the back of the stage, which is bare and open to the walls, filled with props and movie equipment that reminds us we're in pretend movie Ireland. A large screen that spills onto the floor displays images and video of various Irish locations, adding to the cinematic quality of the play. Charlie and Jake wear patched pants with suspenders as the extras working on the farm, changing to only slightly different clothing for evenings off the set. A pair of glasses, or a hat, or a shawl are all that's needed to signify a different character (scenic design by Benjamin Olsen, props design by Abee Warmboe, projection design by Kathy Maxwell, and costume design by Sarah Bahr).

Much like in a Ten Thousand Things show, Music Director and Composer Jason Hansen provides a live soundscape for the story, with almost constant underscoring, playing piano, keyboard, guitar, and various percussive instruments (fun fact: Jason told us on the podcast that he was a percussionist first). There are no songs per se (except for a drunken a capella traditional Irish song), but rather music to accompany the different scenes. There's plenty of traditional Irish music (so of course there's also a fiddle player), but there's also some Country-Western played at the pub, and sweeping melodramatic movie themes. I even noticed that some of the characters have their own theme played each time they appear. It's a lovely collection of music that doesn't draw attention to itself, but rather seamlessly supports the story in a way that you almost forget it's there. In addition to live music, there are a few bits of recorded music when we go into movie mode, as well as other subtle sound effects, including crowd noise so realistic I thought someone in the audience was talking (sound design by Peter Morrow).

Stones in His Pockets is a beloved and frequently performed play, and as per usual Theater Latte Da has found a way to improve the storytelling by adding music. It's such a quintessentially Irish story, finding joy and togetherness amidst tragedy, and the music only makes it moreso. This musicalized Stones in His Pockets is a wonderfully unique addition in what is turning out to be a fantastic Season 26 with Theater Latte Da. And if you have people in your life who say they don't like musicals (to which I typically respond - you just haven't seen the right musical yet), but do like comedies, especially those with a tinge of sadness and a ton of heart, this might be a good one to bring them to, and introduce them to the world of theater musically.

photo by Dan Norman