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History collides with fiction in two accomplished comedies

The moment comes toward the end of Marie Jones' wicked jackknife of a comedy, Stones in His Pockets: Two ambitious local extras who've been playing stereotyped Irish peasants on a movie shoot have buttonholed a Hollywood director over breakfast, trying to sell him on a story far more realistic than the misty claptrap he's been filming.

The director's response to their gripping tale of a farmer's suicide? "Sorry, it's just not sexy enough."

It's nowhere near the first time an artist (of even the most dubious quality) has looked long and hard at life—and then muttered that age-old newsroom plea, "Gimme rewrite." But through a useful quirk in scheduling, two works with contrasting views on art as life rewritten are currently on display at major regional theaters.


In the Doghouse: The Execution of Dostoevsky
1/2
Little Green Pig
Manbites Dog Theater
Through Feb. 3
At Manbites Dog Theater, playwright Michael A. Smith marries slapstick and whole-cloth fiction with considerably grimmer reality in IN THE DOGHOUSE: THE EXECUTION OF DOSTOEVSKY, a significantly altered take on the early years of the Russian novelist.

This isn't the first time Smith has taken Marx' admonition on the ways history repeats itself—first as tragedy, second as farce—as a theatrical rule of thumb. In 2000, A Mouthfulla Sacco and Vanzetti wowed audiences and critics with a recombinant retelling of the famous Anarchists' trial. Where Smith departed from the historical record in that show, it seemed he did so by way of improvement; to reduce the indignity the fateful pair faced, or to provide them with a measure of succor or justice they did not experience in real life. As I noted at the time, Smith used his japes to give the pair the one thing they didn't get at the time of their execution: the last laugh.

And indeed, a similar sort of play is never very far away in Smith's new work. In this version of 1840s Russia, two half-bright, burly minions of the tsar (Eddy Shipman and Geraud Staton) make a burlesque of surveillance in an early scene, as detective and religious zealot Pieski (Thaddeus Edwards) watches suspicious characters through an upheld newspaper in which two holes have conveniently been cut out for the eyes. Eyes are always peering as well from the top of Jeff Alguire and director Tom Marriott's set, an unbroken grid of red leaflets, across which black ink has been spattered in the style of illustrator Ralph Steadman.

For Rodion (Jay O'Berski), Dostoevsky's fictitious roommate and lecher par excellence, no encounter with a women is complete without twisting the maximum number of compatriots into disastrous physical knots of unconsummated (and one-sided) desire. In another section, the infamous, inevitable "knock upon the door" subsequent to Dostoevsky's arrest is belittled in pantomime and theatrical mind games that play with the conventions of the fourth wall.

Equally surreal—and most compelling of all—is the sequence where Dorrie Casey, playing an enigmatic old woman of the Russian streets, serenades Mikhail, Dostoevsky's brother, in his fitful sleep in prison. One part ESP, one part Sprechstimme (the German vocal speak-singing technique), Casey softly sings the words of his children and wife: "Mikhail, you are dead to me, dead to me...." The eerie lullaby ends in hideous cackles.

But the mix of literary and historical figures onstage becomes confusing at times. Avdotya (Dana Marks), a character from Crime and Punishment, depicts a forward-thinking free woman of the time—but one who still tastefully recoils when Casey's beggar solicits Dostoevsky for a coin. Still, we feel somehow shorted upon learning Dostoevsky actually had no historical analogue like her who followed him into his years of exile. And given the grimness of the actual execution the author avoided only at the last minute, Smith's fictitious depiction of Mikhail accidentally taking a bullet that had been intended for his brother seems gratuitous.

Smith's poetic closing epilogue draws on The House of the Dead and Crime and Punishment to summarize Dostoevsky's Siberian experiences. The length of this ending exposition suggests a playwright trying to check off a list of plot points about the writer's future, and the country's, that he otherwise won't get to in his script.

Still, Doghouse is convincing in its depiction of an unassuming writer caught up in the social turbulence of mid-19th-century Russia. These characters all seem ripe for the whirlwind—except the poor and destitute. Significantly, they are present in the figure of the beggar before the play "begins"—and after it concludes.


click to enlarge Unquiet men: David Alley and David Friedlander in Stones in His Pockets - PHOTO BY JON GARDINER

In STONES IN HIS POCKETS, the challenge for the two actors on stage is significant. Each must portray at least six different characters on the set and in the Irish village where a major motion picture is being filmed—without the niceties of costume or makeup change, or a moment's pause off-stage. But a related challenge confronted Saturday night's audience in Paul Green Theater: Of the two actors on stage, which was the seasoned veteran, and which was still a graduate student in UNC's Dramatic Arts program?

For the record, David Friedlander is still working on his degree, though under John Feltch's distinguished direction he fully matched, and occasionally excelled, veteran David Alley in what must be called a major theatrical workout. The two segued, repeatedly, among a cast of characters ranging from an aging screen ingénue to a grizzled local secure in his position as the last surviving extra from the John Wayne film The Quiet Man.

Yes, a student in a mainstage lead is a major development at Playmakers. But those of us who've repeatedly witnessed the caliber of student talent in independent and program-sponsored productions already knew that the proposition wasn't really that much of a gamble.

Stones in His Pockets

Playmakers Rep
Through Feb. 11
Here, Friedlander brought wit and humanity to Jake, an Irish homeboy who's related to most of the locals. He and Charlie, convincingly read by Alley, ride a dragon made of tinsel through film-land's absurdities and sobering twists. Both laugh and make us care, in a nothing-hidden theater whose magic leaves us pondering, days later, "Just how did they do that?" Highly recommended.

E-mail Byron at bwoods@indyweek.com.

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