Two actors play 15 different characters in ‘Stones in His Pockets’

Marcus Truschinski and Nate Burger contain multitudes in this APT production, which is more than just a madcap theater stunt.
Stones In His Pockets 1
Photo by Liz Lauren
Marcus Truschinski (left) and Nate Burger play Irish drifters — and 15 other characters — in American Players Theatre's production of "Stones in His Pockets."

If theater had its own version of the Summer Olympics, performing in a show like playwright Marie Jones’ “Stones in His Pockets” would be the equivalent in competing in the decathlon. This two-hander requires its actors — in the case of American Players Theatre’s current shoulder season production, Marcus Truschinski and Nate Burger — to play 15 different characters between them, without a single break or costume change. This is the kind of play that, in the wrong hands, can test an actors’ acumen and an audience’s focus.

Truschinski and Burger play Jake and Charlie, a pair of Irish drifters who’ve caught on as extras in an American film being produced in their town (“The arsehole of County Kerry”). For 40 quid per day, they get to rub shoulders with Hollywood stars and get a glimpse of the kind of life they’ve dreamed of having.

But they also play every other character in the play. As part of his acting arsenal, Truschinski shifts to become a swishy female production assistant, a frustrated young kid who dreams of escaping Ireland and the cantankerous last-surviving extra from the filming of “The Quiet Man.” Burger, meanwhile, morphs into the film’s starlet lead, the film’s director and multiple villagers/extras. The actors signal their character changes with shifts in vocal tone, posture and affect, as well as physical gestures, like removing their cap or shifting it backward. Burger flips his hair, flounces his imaginary blond locks and kicks his voice up an octave when he switches from Charlie into the starlet.

Some of the audience members struggled to keep up with the rapid-fire changes, but the play has a code that’s not difficult to decipher. In one particular scene, I kept waiting for Burger to miss the cue of turning his cap backward and forward to shift between playing the film’s director and Jake, but he aced it.

The changes emphasize both actors’ range, as they’re expected to shift emotions like a runner navigating hurdles on a track. (I’ve had a hard time erasing the high-pitched and airy “Qui-et! Set-tle!” call that Truschinski’s production assistant uses to round up the extras for the next movie scene.) Truschinski and Burger have a natural camaraderie and chemistry — they’ve been searching for a play like this in which to co-star for several years now — and it shows in the slowly burgeoning friendship between Jake and Charlie. The former’s been to the U.S. and returned to Ireland in defeat; the latter has a rough draft of a screenplay he’s hoping will be his ticket off the Emerald Isle.

“Stones in his Pockets” is more than just a madcap theater stunt, however. The play’s title is tied to the seriously abrupt change in tone that curveballs the end of the first act (“Well, that got dark,” commented one audience member) and its themes explore the dashed, downtrodden hopes of its Irish protagonists as well as the resilience that still burns within them. As much as you’ll laugh at the interplay between the shifting characters — and this play has a ton of laugh-out-loud scenes — you’ll also come to empathize and root for them. Director Tim Ocel does a great job of leveraging the acting talent to drive both sides of the formula home.

In contrast to this summer’s APT production of “The River Bride,” which transported the Touchstone to the banks of the Amazon River with a full dock and copious hanging foliage, “Stones” adopts a far more minimalist approach. The set’s little more than a large flat wooden platform on the floor and another one suspended horizontally about 6 feet off the ground. You could read it as two sides of a wooden box, a box that echoes the ways the play’s characters feel trapped by their circumstances, or maybe it’s meant to signify the blank canvas the characters use to paint their unforgettable performances. Either way, “Stones in His Pockets” is the latest in a line of bare-bones, essential APT Touchstone performances that will stick with you for a long, long time.

Stones in His Pockets” plays at Touchstone through Nov. 20.

Aaron R. Conklin writes his award-winning coverage of the Madison-area theater scene for madisonmagazine.com.

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