Ulysses for Beginners: A Theatrical Adaptation
by Tony Reilly from the book
by James Joyce, Maine Irish Heritage Center, Portland, Maine, USA (June 11, 2004)
Barbara Truex ("B.T.") and Christopher White ("C.W.") wrote this review together. In the review, their individual comments are preceded by their initials.
C.W.: Even those of us (yes, I confess, yes, yes . . . ) who have somehow not managed a complete reading of Ulysses, James Joyce's modern classic, know at least a bit about it. I've started it three times and had three copies mysteriously disappear before I got very far. Now, with Ulysses for Beginners under my belt, it's time to get a fourth copy and put it on my summer reading list . . . again.
The entire book takes place on June 16, 1904. (And everyone thought "24" was such an innovative idea!) It follows Leopold Bloom, the Irish-born Jewish cuckold whose travels about Dublin on this one day mirror the decade it took the Greek hero of the title to find his way home to his wife Penelope in Ithaca. Stephen Daedelus (Joyce's stand-in) makes his own intertwined journey as well.
The specificity of the day, the epic nature of the story, and the importance of the book to modernist literature, have combined to make "Bloomsday" a celebratory occasion. Sometimes it is observed by marathon readings of Joyce's masterwork. But who has the time (not to mention attention span) to attend such affairs? What market exists for hours of deep listening? Enter Ulysses for Beginners.
Ulysses for Beginners was given its world premier a few days before the "Bloomsday" centenary as a staged reading at the Maine Irish Heritage Center in Portland. On that day in 1904 when Leopold Bloom meandered about Dublin, St. Dominic's Church was the spiritual and physical center of Portland's most Irish neighborhood. The Maine Irish Heritage Center has taken on the task of filling St. Dominic's de-consecrated space with new community activities. This afforded the fifty or more audience members a chance to sit where St. Dominic's altar once stood, looking out into the majestic vaulted nave, which is suffused with light that pours through the stained glass windows with their Celtic designs.
The visual effect was spectacular, but the acoustics proved more problematic. The Church was designed to pump a priest's careful cadences out to the congregation, so we were essentially sitting inside a speaker cabinet that proved highly sensitive to the speed, volume, and pitch of the readers. Each seat had its own unique relationship with the sound waves bouncing off the resonant walls. Then there was the technical glitch that left a planned PowerPoint slide and music accompaniment non-functional. Whew!
A true multimedia Bloomsday Centenary Celebration, the evening opened with a number of Joyce's lyric poems set to music by Geoffrey Palmer. Palmer was an English composer and a contemporary of Joyce. The poems were from Chamber Music, the first book published by Joyce. Joyce hoped that they would find music, and quite a few notable composers have, indeed, done so. Reportedly Palmer's settings were Joyce's favorites. It was thought Palmer had only created music for four of the poems until the 1980s when 32 were discovered in an Illinois library.
BT: Janet Lynch and Michael Albert each presented two songs from the above-mentioned collection. The old cathedral provided the perfect acoustic setting for their clear, precise voices, which soared through the sanctuary and out over the pews. I had a mind to get up and move to the middle of the pews to listen from a distance, but I was good and stayed politely in my seat. "The Winds of May" and "Bright Cap and Streamers" were sung by soprano Janet Lynch; "The Twilight Turns from Amethyst" and "At That Hour" sung by countertenor Michael Albert. The piano accompaniment was provided by Susan Kirck. The songs were an enjoyable way to start the evening, giving the audience an opportunity to see another side of Joyce before diving into the novel. Both singers are also instrumentalists (though they only sang here) and perform traditional Irish music as well as classical music.
CW: Despite all the glitches and hitches, the reading was an absolute delight. Even lacking the multimedia support with which they'd rehearsed, the five actors reading, plus creator Tony Reilly as Narrator, managed to entertain and elucidate with a witty, comic, synopsis of Joyce's book. Furthermore, they did so with all due respect for the source.
Tony Reilly (co-founder and Artistic Director of the American Irish Repertory Ensemble and a company member of The Irish Repertory Theater in NYC) knows his way around both the stage and Irish literature. Watching Reilly, costumed in a professor's cap and gown, frenetically wielding a long wooden pointer in zigzagging arcs across the blank screen, on which a map of Dublin was planned to appear, while describing the perambulations of Daedelus and Bloom was alone worth the price of admission. Ulysses for Beginners outlines the book in a way that, like an excellent starter, whets the appetite for the main course. Bring on Joyce, hand me that copy of Ulysses!
The readers included Michael Kimball and Joshua Stammell as Bloom and Daedelus respectively. They were joined by Tony Owen, Pat Owen and Susan Reilly. All except Pat Owen have extensive stage experience. Ms. Owen, a visual artist and member of the MIHC board, acquitted herself well during the reading, especially in the concluding back-and-forth exchange with Susan Reilly of bits from Molly Bloom's soliloquy.
Pat Owen also painted the Joyce portrait used on the poster and curated the accompanying Bloomsday Centenary exhibition mounted in the (still under renovation) basement hall. Artist & Craftsman Supply, a local retailer, contributed large sheets of handmade paper which were given to a group of well-regarded local artists who each created a work based upon Joyce's Ulysses. The paintings were then hung, clothesline style, in a way that created a 'gallery' more appropriately sized for the art than the huge open space.
The Maine Irish Heritage Center offered a fitting tribute to Joyce on the centenary of 'Bloomsday.' Ulysses for Beginners offered the audience a glimpse into Joyce's masterpiece that made one more inclined to tackle (or return to) the source. It was the ideal main course at a feast for the senses. The short recital and art exhibition were perfect side dishes. And dessert was going out after the show to one of Portland's Irish pubs with the cast and a handful of family, friends and audience members to hoist a pint of Guinness in a toast to James Joyce.
[Christopher White and Barbara Truex]