2 Actors. 14 Roles. How Do They Pull It Off?

Joan Marcus PhotoThese guys play 14 roles—count ‘em—on the stage. The roles call for accents from three different parts of Ireland, Cockney, American, faux American, and even a Marilyn Monroe-esque movie star who speaks with bizarre intonations and a three-days’ growth of beard.

That’s the challenge facing young actors Fred Arsenault and Euan Morton in a play opening at the Yale Rep called Stones In His Pockets.

Sliding from working class-brogue to the tones of a garbled aesthete, character to character, the two actors portray Irish drifters in their 30s who have nabbed jobs as extras on a big-budget movie being filmed in their native Ireland.

“Extra” here means not only picking up 40 quid a day and the excitement of being around filming, but being extra or superfluous even in the drama of their own lives, lives that are both rapidly spiraling downward.

Just the two of them are on stage for 90 plus minutes in the Yale Rep’s energetic production of Irish writer Marie Jones’s 1996 play.

The “two-hander,” as actors refer to such fiscally more possible-to-produce plays, opens Thursday night and runs through Feb. 16.

These actors’ aim is to get you, audience member, up on the stage in your imagination, to be with them.

The two actors must create characters——movie director, assistant directors, riggers, an affected actress, other extras, local bar flies, an addict—in an instant in a memorable manner, then shift into someone else..

They repeatedly return to their main characters, Jake Quinn and Charlie Conlon— then moments later whirl or change a prop and suddenly become Sean the druggie or Mickey, the world’s oldest living Irish extra, or Aisling, the obnoxiously mannered assistant director.

As the play progresses, it builds from a comic send-up of movie and Irish types to a deeper, more troubled core, including a suicide whose method recalls the fate of novelist Virginia Woolf and gives the play its title.

Two at the Table, Lunch for 14, Please

Offstage, we caught Morton and Arsenault the other day playing two other characters—themselves.

Over lunch at Zaroka, Morton and Arsenault spoke to the Independent about the challenge of doing all that character and accent-shifting. They said such a “two-hander” exercises their own acting muscles. They argued that it’s good, and maybe even revitalizing, for the audience as well.

“People come to the theater because TV [particularly reality TV] is sucking the imagination,” Morton said.

In the theater they get to exercise their imagination to make invisible people come alive. You could almost say that if the actors are dong their job, according to Morton and Arsenault, the audience is the third actor in this play—joining them up on the stage each time they create a character who is not there in the flesh.

Click on the play for the actors’ ardent sermon, delivered over vegetable pecora and chicken tiki marsala.

Is there a risk that audience members might feel shortchanged to have just two actors play all 14 characters? Only, the two actors responded, if the two actors themselves don’t have chemistry between them. These two actors do have chemistry.

Morton said the challenge of pulling off a two-hander was one reason he accepted the job. “There’s definitely more pressure without a rest of the cast,” he said. He seized it for the opportunity to play “old and young, male and female.”

“The whole process has been enjoyable,” said Morton, who was cast for the Charlie Conlon role long before Arsenault came aboard.

Morton, who has made a growing name for himself in part by originating the role of Boy George in Taboo, described the actors’-eye view of the rapid-fire chemistry between himself and Arsenault.

“For us, it’s a bunch of green turf and doing accents. So when people understand, it’s a joy,” he said.

Arsenault’s next project is playing Torvald to his wife Gretchen Hall’s Nora in a production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego.

Morton said he’s considering a musical that opens in Dallas in the coming months. In the shorter term, when Stones in His Pockets, with all its 14 characters, closes, he plans to hike all of the Appalachian Trail. Alone. All alone.

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