Cahal Stephens
Cahal Stephens in a scene from "Finnegans Wake." Photos by Ralph Stewart

Bloomsday at the Katharine Cornell was serious stuff

By Dan Cabot - June 21, 2007

James Joyce fans around the world celebrate June 16, which they call "Bloomsday" after Leopold Bloom, the hero of Joyce's novel Ulysses. June 16 is the fictional day in 1904 when the events of the novel are imagined to take place.

About 70 Vineyarders assembled last Saturday at the Katharine Cornell Theatre to immerse themselves in Joyce's wild and weird language, from the accessible "Dubliners" to the incomprehensible "Finnegans Wake." The Vineyard Bloomsday, staged by Arts & Society and different every year, is "the oldest continuous public celebration of the life and works of James Joyce in the United States, and perhaps anywhere in the world," according to the program notes. This year's show, as always produced and directed by John Crelan, was the 29th.

Mr. Crelan's shows always include music, and this year the music was especially professional. Tony Peak's bagpipes piped the audience into the theatre from Spring Street, then played a bit of "Johnny Comes Marching Home" as an introduction to the same song sung by a chorus on the balcony and accompanied by Phil Dietterich on the piano. The lyrics were not the familiar patriotic Civil War song but the darker World War I version (contemporary with Joyce), where Johnny comes home minus various body parts. Mr. Dietterich, always first-rate, also accompanied Irish tenor Kevin Ryan in "The Lass of Aughrim" and pure, clear soprano Elizabeth Balay in three musical settings by Samuel Barber - two poems from Joyce's collection Chamber Music and a mysterious passage from Ulysses. Barber's lugubrious melodies (think "Adagio for Strings") were appropriate for the content of the lyrics.

Natalie Rose
Molly (Natalie Rose) from "Ulysses" at the annual Bloomsday show last weekend.

In contrast to the solemn tone of the other music, Cahal Stevens and Mr. Dietterich introduced the section of the show devoted to "Finnegans Wake" with a rollicking version of the traditional Irish folk song "Finnegan's Wake," probably the source of Joyce's title. Four actors - Christine Power, Gerry Yukevich, Cahal Stephens, and Donal O'Sullivan - spent 17 minutes interpreting scenes from the novel. There was a great deal of physical stage-business. In Christine Power's expressive gestures a white sheet (it had been a shroud in an earlier scene) became angel wings, the sea, and her father's embrace. At least, that's what I thought she said. With "Finnegans Wake," no one can be sure. The sections chosen had moments when one might for a minute or two start following what the actors were saying, but the story, if that's what it was, soon dissolved in Gaelic or another language, or in nonsense sounds. For an audience, the fun is not the story but the extravagant flood of words (not all of them English) and the craziness of expressions like "vociferate echoating" or "gossipaceous."

After the 2004 show, Mr. Crelan explained in an interview that he tells the actors not to worry much about what the words mean, but just to let the language speak to them.

An audience member may be forgiven for reacting with a line from Sean O'Casey: "Was that anything now?" Seventeen minutes might be a bit more than the traffic will bear.

Every year Gerry Yukevich - Vineyard physician, actor, writer, and long-time Bloomsday participant - chooses a story from "Dubliners" to present as a dramatic monologue, always one of the high points of the show. In contrast to the impenetrability of "Finnegans Wake," "Dubliners" is written in language anyone can understand, though that doesn't mean the stories are easy. This year Dr. Yukevich chose the final scene from "The Dead."

"The Dead" excerpt was a challenging assignment. After leaving a family party, Gabriel and his wife, Gretta, go to a hotel, where Gabriel learns that when Gretta was a young girl, she knew a boy who, she thinks, died for love of her. Gretta's grief, long hidden from Gabriel, pours out, and Gabriel's reactions change from desire to jealousy to compassion to gloom. The scene in the hotel room involves very little physical action, and Dr. Yukevich had to convey a wide range of emotions (Gretta's grief, Gabriel's many responses) using only his voice. Gabriel's self-important lust is, in the beginning of the scene, ridiculous if not comical, and Gabriel at first is not a character the audience is likely to identify with, yet his thoughts comprise most of the monologue. Nevertheless, Dr. Yukevich did an excellent job, and the audience reacted enthusiastically.

Mr. Crelan's Bloomsday shows always end with Molly Bloom's soliloquy from near the end of "Ulysses." As Mr. Crelan once told The Times, "You have to have a Molly. People expect it." Natalie Rose was an excellent Molly.

Molly, Leopold Bloom's wife, has been awakened in the early hours of June 17 and asked to provide breakfast. Dressed in her nightdress, frowzled and sleepy at first, her moods change as she grumbles to herself about her life. When Molly is an angry wife, bitter about her husband's demands and infidelities, Ms. Rose's face clouded and her steps across the stage were heavy and assertive, her voice bitterly sarcastic. When Molly thinks about her girlhood and her romances, Ms. Rose's face lit up with the recollections of young love and exciting places, her arms and body made light, extravagant gestures, and her voice was young again and eager.

Every Molly must interpret for herself the famous last line of the soliloquy: "...his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes." It is often delivered raptuously, ending with a climax on the final "Yes!" Ms. Rose chose to leave off the final word and ended with a quiet "I will," said regretfully over her shoulder as she left the stage.

After the show, one audience member told The Times that she found the show "not as much fun as in other years." It was certainly more serious this year, and perhaps there was not as much of Joyce's playfulness. The music, too, though well performed, was mostly serious and sad. But Bloomsday 2007 had fine moments, especially Dr. Yukevich's monologue and Ms. Rose's soliloquy. We look forward to next year.

I woke up Sunday morning speaking with an Irish brogue. When I told my wife that I was "after wantin' me breakfast," she told me sternly that Bloomsday was over. The phony brogue was gone by midmorning.