Revenge, reverie and redemption in Utah

Brian Vaughn as Charlie, left, and David Ivers as Jake star in the Utah Shakespeare Festival production of Marie Jones’ play “Stones in His Pockets.” Enlarge photo

Courtesy of Karl Hugh/Utah Shakespeare Festival

Brian Vaughn as Charlie, left, and David Ivers as Jake star in the Utah Shakespeare Festival production of Marie Jones’ play “Stones in His Pockets.”

The modern Irish masterpiece, “Stones in His Pockets,” is worth a trip to the Utah Shakespeare Festival this fall.

Here’s the premise: Jake and Charlie, two locals from County Kerry, meet as extras on the set of a new American movie, “The Quiet Valley.” Like the 1952 John Wayne movie “The Quiet Man,” the new film will idealize Ireland. Hollywood knows that sappy romance sells.

First produced in Ireland in 1996, “Stones” is gaining momentum all over the world. Utah Shakespeare first staged it in 2005 with David Ivers and Brian Vaughn playing Jake and Charlie plus 13 other roles in a performance you have to see to believe.

The theatrical conceit is to have the actors begin as Jake and Charlie then flesh out the tragicomedy with more Irish extras and the Hollywood film crew. The characterizations are so sharp and specific that the storytelling unfolds as naturally as wind over a field of barley.

A key theme is the contrast between life and art, shoddy exploitation and Hollywood fantasy, harsh realities and impossible dreams.

Since the 2005 version, the actors have sharpened the differences between the two main characters. Vaughn’s Charlie is instantly likeable. A cheerful optimist, he delights in his chance to be in an American “filim,” as he puts it. Jake is the realist, burned by an unsuccessful attempt at the American Dream and now living “with me Ma.”

As the actors weave all 15 roles together, they unspool the double story and live through an intimate village tragedy.

Playwright Marie Jones has been called The Bard of Belfast. “Stones” was first performed in Ireland and has been to Broadway and around the world. One reason for its popularity is characters that illuminate small passions and carry global themes. “Stones” is about human resilience; it’s also about rural disintegration and American cultural imperialism.

Here are a few more reasons to drive to Cedar City: 1) the scenery, whether you take the southern route through Kayenta and Zion National Park or the northern route from Moab to I-70 and its Western corridor of canyons; 2) the two other USF fall productions – “Hamlet” and “Les Misérables.” The Utah Festival’s fall season extends through Oct. 27.

“Hamlet.” Everyone knows and may be all too familiar with the story of the prince who seeks revenge for his father’s murder. But in the Festival’s modern-dress version new insights abound.

The production begins in clouds of darkness, and Elsinore looks like an ancient ruin. But flashlights signal it is today, not the 16th century.

When Hamlet sees his father’s ghost, he’s struck dumb and stares out into the audience. We are enveloped in his shocking discovery because the voice and the light emanate from behind us.

Danforth Comins, a young, athletic actor from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, delivers a mesmerizing performance as the troubled prince. As he shifts from stunned grief and anger to sullen courtier, Comins underscores his highly nuanced interpretation with this line: “I am not in madness but mad in craft.”

After the sumptuously dressed court disperses, Hamlet reappears as an angry Goth teenager with the look and attitude of a skinhead. All in black, he wears jeans, a skull T-shirt and canvas trench coat. This Hamlet instantly evokes any number of American mass shooters – from Columbine to Aurora. A chilling association.

Comins further underscores Hamlet’s anger and insolence, mocking Ophelia (Sara J. Griffin), brutalizing Queen Gertrude (Kymberly Mellen) and killing just about everybody else. But Comins does all this with subtlety. He shifts from his opening frenzy into calculated mockery then calm revenge. When Hamlet apologizes to Laertes (Ben Jacoby) for killing his father, Comins stated it simply, with a steady voice of reason.

“Les Misérables.” The Utah Festival has wanted to mount “Les Miz,” as it is colloquially and affectionately known, for many years. Now that the popular musical-cum-opera has passed its 25th anniversary, USF got the rights to perform the original London version. For those who have seen the big West End or touring show with its huge turntable, this production offers a fresh approach, particularly in staging.

All the principals are strong, especially J. Michael Bailey’s Jean Valjean and Brian Vaughn’s Inspector Javert. The contrast between Valjean’s human warmth and Javert’s unyielding coldness comes through every encounter. Vaughn’s Javert seemed more tragic than hateful, adding depth to the story.

Another addition – at battle’s end, women and girls identify the bodies of their men and brothers. The women clear the battle scene and fold the bloodstained flags. The action may have been necessitated by a simple staging problem, but it was new and emotionally charged.

If you’ve never seen “Les Miz” before or many times in many cities, see it again. It, too, is worth the trip.

Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, artist and critic. Reach her at jreynolds@durangoherald.com.