Bloomsday: Rejoicing in Joyce at the Katharine Cornell

David O'Docherty sang and played the tin whistle at Bloomsday three days before his sudden death while swimming in Katama Bay. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

On Wednesday last week, this year’s edition of Arts & Society’s Bloomsday celebration at the Katharine Cornell Theatre was a delightful 90 minutes of Irish music, history, whimsy, laughter, and serious dramatic renderings of the words of the exuberant, sensual, brilliant, and sometimes-difficult-to-understand Irish writer James Joyce (1882-1941).

The event also marks the last performance of David O’Docherty, a man known for his knowledge of Irish music and ability to capture an audience. For more on his death, see the News section of The Times.

The events of Joyce’s novel “Ulysses” follow the adventures of its protagonist, Leopold Bloom, and are imagined to take place in a single day on June 16, 1904. “Ulysses” was voted the finest English novel of the 20th century by a jury of scholars and writers, according to The New York Times. The first Bloomsday celebration was held in Dublin in 1954, and is now held in cities all over the world. The concert produced by John Crelan and Arts & Society, first staged in 1979, is the oldest continuous public celebration of Bloomsday in the United States, perhaps in the world. The first Martha’s Vineyard edition of the Bloomsday show was in 1995.

Mr. Crelan’s shows in the past have often featured dramatizations or monologues featuring passages to showcase Joyce’s whimsical non-sequiturs and extravagant use of nonsense language. Hardcore Joyce fans may have regretted the omission of the spectacularly obscure from this year’s Bloomsday show, but the audience, nearly a full house, was treated to a much more accessible James Joyce.

For example, rather than dramatizing a scene from, say, the esoteric “Finnegan’s Wake,” Mr. Crelan this year staged “The Cat and the Devil,” a children’s story Joyce wrote for his grandson. With Tisbury physician Gerry Yukevich as the Lord Mayor of Beaugency, France, and local attorney Buck Reidy as the Devil, the story tells of how the mayor tricks the devil into building a bridge over the Loire. Mr. Crelan prompted the audience’s parts with cue cards, which he shortly began mixing up, to the audience’s delight. Though accessible, “The Cat and the Devil” is not without Joycean flights of whimsy and exuberant language.

The music and the skits were all wonderful, but the highlights of the evening were Dr. Yukevich’s narration of “The Boardinghouse” (from “Dubliners,” a collection of short stories) and Natalie Rose’s dramatization of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy from the final pages of “Ulysses.”

Dr. Yukevich is slowly working his way through “Dubliners,” one story per year. “The Boardinghouse,” straightforward enough on the printed page, presents multiple challenges as a dramatic monologue. The story is about Mrs. Mooney, separated from her drunkard husband, who is making her way in the world as the owner of a boardinghouse and slyly seeking a husband for her daughter, Polly. Dr. Yukevich told the story in the persona of the narrator (Joyce), but with his voice and body language he also limned all the characters.

For most of the story, the point of view is of Mrs. Mooney, who judiciously watches her daughter flirting with the lodgers, careful not to intervene too much or too little. Near the end, the point of view shifts to Bob Doran, the young man who has seduced (or been seduced by) Polly, and effectively trapped himself in the process. Then in the final minute or two, the story is told through the point of view of the rather empty-headed Polly. Dr. Yukevich skillfully shifted in and out of these roles, as well as stepping into brief cameos as Bob Doran’s conservative employer and Polly’s tough and short-tempered brother.

Most of the content of Mr. Crelan’s Bloomsday shows varies from year to year, but they always end with Molly. “People expect it,” Mr. Crelan once told The Times.

In the novel, Molly Bloom’s soliloquy is an interior monologue — we read what she is thinking about her life, her husband, her body, her past. On stage, Molly speaks aloud — but to whom is she speaking? Natalie Rose, a veteran of many Bloomsday shows, has solved the problem brilliantly. Her Molly is not musing to herself, as one might suppose the character in the novel is doing, but speaking to a confidant in the way a woman might talk in a most unguarded moment to her best friend. Molly is by turns slatternly, sarcastic, cynical, romantic, angry about her husband’s infidelities (though amused by her own), regretful of her lost opportunities, but at last in love with life and in particular with affection and sex. Ms. Rose’s Molly vented to us, giggled with us, was honest with us in a way that only the most intimate of friends enjoy. When her monologue came to an end, we knew who she was.