Playwright: Dermot Bolger, adapted from Ulysses, by James Joyce
At: Irish Repertory Theatre at Victory Gardens, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.
Phone: (773) 871-3000; $36-$42
Runs through: June 27
Despite its landmark status in the history of literary censorship, few readers have ever completed James Joyce's Ulysses. Oh, there are its much-quoted sexual and scatological descriptions, but generations of scholars and voyeurs alike have surrendered in despair to Joyce's rambling narrative and densely packed wordplay. Dermot Bolger's stage adaptation offers a rudimentary path through the verbal thicket, but the accessibility of this Irish Repertory world premiere production is rooted, not in Joyce's arcane prose, but in performance spectacle just as intricate and much more fun.
The play opens with a husband lifting his sleeping wife's nightie and dropping a dainty kiss on her bare buttocks—an introduction guaranteeing our rapt attention. We then follow our bourgeois protagonist through his day, from the funeral of an associate, then to a series of pubs, parks and finally a brothel from whence he rescues a drunk young schoolteacher. We also follow our hero though his IMAGINED day, a saga riddled with unexpected erotica—peeking up a girl's dress at a fireworks display, for example. Why Leopold Bloom should entertain these fantasies is puzzling, since we never see Mrs. Bloom anywhere but in bed, rhapsodizing in sensual introspection.
As the title indicates, Bloom's adventures allegedly parallel the myth of Odysseus, but who cares when we have 19 actors portraying 60 characters, arranged in a variety of visual and aural compositions on the Victory Gardens' sprawling second-floor stage (site of last season's likewise epic-sized Cider House Rules)? When the action slides from one episode to the next with the nebulous ease of a dream? When a raconteur holds forth in medieval, renaissance, Beat and revivalist modes, all in a single scene? When a pompous Anglophile sports a Union Jack waistcoat? And let's not forget the mighty Alexandra Billings in a cameo turn as the omnipotent madam Bella Cohen.
At 2-1/2 hours on its final preview night, this ambitious project—recalling the early work of Mary Zimmerman—could have emerged as so much chaotic tedium. But director Matt O'Brien, dialect coach Martin Aistrope, an accomplished technical team and a marathon-trained ensemble led by Will Clinger and Laura Scott Wade render every intellectually provoking moment riveting.
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