The first few minutes of "Stones in His Pockets," a dark comedy that runs through Nov. 8 at the new TheatreFIRST playhouse in downtown Oakland, can be a bit disconcerting.
That is because two male actors morph into 15 characters between them with only the barest assistance from props or costumes. It's like walking into a dark room and waiting for your vision to adjust — if you're not prepared for the alchemy of acting that follows.
The actors, Clive Worsley and Kevin Karrick, transform continually from their main characters — two hard-luck Irish blokes — into characters as distinct as a priest, a Hollywood starlet and her burly bodyguard.
Under the direction of TheatreFIRST's Michael Storm, Worsley and Karrick use posture, facial expressions and accents so seamlessly that the acting is never obvious.
"Stones in His Pockets" revolves around the arrival of a Hollywood movie crew in County Kerry, Ireland, to capture the "authentic" Ireland for a big-budget film. But the crew reduces the Emerald Isle to nothing more than a backdrop. The cows, for example, have to be replaced because they "don't look Irish enough."
The villagers, already suffering from the country's economic transition, are reduced to playing extras in their own homeland for 40 quid, "free grub" and the fantasy of fame.
Meanwhile, Hollywood star Caroline Giovanni (rumored to be modeled on Tom Cruise during the filming of 1992's "Far and Away") gushes over how "simple, uncomplicated and contented" the locals are. Her faux Irish accent sounds like metal raked over a chalkboard, so she "goes ethnic" by trying to seduce Karrick's thoughtful character Jake Quinn.
He becomes a sex toy with an accent, as Worsley's rakish character, Charlie Conlon, puts it.
Charlie and Jake provide much of the comedy as a sort of Gaelic version of Laurel and Hardy. They also provide the tragedy because they, like everyone else in the village, have no choice but to participate in the absurdity forced on them by the crew, who are oblivious to how degrading their power is.
And that's where the tension emerges, adding suspense to the story by Irish playwright Marie Jones.
The title comes from a suicidal drowning by a young man whose dreams were thwarted by history, prejudice and poverty.
"What do you call a Kerry man with brains?" Charlie asks.
"Dangerous," he replies.
"Stones in His Pockets" is the kind of production TheatreFIRST excels at: Gripping bare-boned stories that rely on high-caliber acting. Worsley at one moment is the scrawny Charlie, who hides a dark core with joking optimism, then turns around and becomes glamorous Giovanni, then her hulking bodyguard. Then he is suddenly Charlie again, or a priest.
Karrick alternates between Jake, a suicidal junkie, the ambitious assistant director with a cheerleader's persona ("Big smiles, everyone!"), and Mickey, whose claim to fame is to be the last surviving extra from John Wayne's "The Quiet Man." The female characters are the least convincing, but asking the middle-aged actors to be perfect as young women might be unrealistic.
Generally, the characters are stereotypes, which makes them recognizable and easy to laugh at even while what they are saying is atrocious or tragic. That is the genius of dark comedy, which makes the play as apt for Oakland a decade after its premiere on a Dublin stage.
The story is, as Jake would say, universal.