A Dublin Bloom

Irish Repertory

at Victory Gardens Theater

When I was young I used to carry around a copy of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I told myself I wanted to be like Joyce’s protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, and “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” But really I carried the book to ward off the three specters haunting my father: mediocrity, disappointment, and middle age. I needn’t have bothered. What Dedalus hopes for at the end of Portrait is an illusion, as Joyce takes pains to point out in his next book, Ulysses. There’s no escaping my father’s specters. We will never be all we hoped to be, and the only alternative to growing older is death.

The beauty of Ulysses is that it succeeds in being life affirming even as it delivers harsh truths. Indeed, Joyce’s work is celebratory in part because it’s so honest about the unsavory aspects of life: Ulysses is filled with farting and peeing, menstruation and defecation, not to mention adultery, bigotry, stupidity, egotism, drunkenness, cupidity, venality, greed, and empty-headed patriotism.

The beauty of A Dublin Bloom–Dermot Bolger’s free adaptation of Ulysses, being given its world premiere by Irish Repertory–is that it’s so true to Joyce’s message, borrowed from the Book of Job: Man is born to sorrow as the sparks fly upward. Yet Bolger takes considerable liberties with Joyce’s structure, beginning the play where the novel ends: Leopold Bloom is sleeping off a rare night on the town while Molly launches into her famous soliloquy. Bolger also inserts a little orienting text, making it clear that much of what we see onstage is Bloom’s dreamed recollection of the day he’s just lived, June 16, 1904–a day in which he buries a friend, muses about his long-dead son, lusts after a lame girl at the beach, befriends a troubled young poet (Dedalus), and tries to ignore the fact that his wife is having an affair with the vulgar, narcissistic Blazes Boylan.

It’s not clear whether Molly’s soliloquy is part of Bloom’s dream or whether she’s having a parallel dream, but it doesn’t really matter. Either interpretation works. I prefer to think Leo dreams Molly’s speech as well, if only because it adds to his pathos. In this interpretation, Bloom doesn’t just suspect his wife of cheating on him–he knows everything about the assignation, from the position his wife and Boylan used to the remarkable size of Boylan’s tool. And still Bloom forgives and loves her. In his innovations Bolger proves himself a true Joycean, bold, creative, willing to take risks–because as Joyce pointed out, mistakes are the portals of discovery.

Bolger may have changed the form of Joyce’s work and condensed it into a two-hour play, but the major characters are all here: not only Bloom and Molly but Dedalus, Boylan, Stephen’s drunkard father, Bella Cohen, Gerty MacDowell, and stately, plump Buck Mulligan. And they’re here vividly because Bolger, director Matt O’Brien, and the cast have worked hard to make this adaptation stageworthy.

Once Bolger establishes that we’re watching Bloom’s dreams, the story unfolds chronologically, the way Joyce wrote it. Bolger begins each scene–each corresponding to a chapter–with a selection from Molly’s soliloquy, delivered mostly in snippets. Since the last chapter of Ulysses essentially sums up the novel’s action, albeit in a highly distorted, dreamlike way, these introductory sections sharpen the focus of each scene. A good hour before Bloom, a virtual teetotaler, is tricked into getting drunk with his companions, Molly complains about the wastrels her husband hangs out with–a complaint that makes us suspicious of Bloom’s so-called friends long before they betray him.

In his casting, O’Brien–like Bolger–is sometimes faithful to the text and somtimes not. Many of the actors are naturals for the parts they play. The over-the-top, slightly unreal Alexandra Billings, for example, portrays the larger-than-life Bella Cohen. Earthy, sexy, witty Laura Scott Wade is Molly Bloom, a role for which she seems to have been destined. But O’Brien is willing to play against preconceptions to improve the final product. I can’t think of an actor who conforms less to my picture of Bloom than the geeky, gawky Will Clinger, former host of Wild Chicago. Somewhat eager and puppyish, Clinger is rail thin–and I always imagined Bloom to be stout and dignified.

Yet Clinger makes a very moving Bloom, conveying the best and worst of Job: patient and passive, hopeful and complacent, faithful and cowlike. Throughout the play Bloom’s fellow Dubliners insult or snub this kind, gentle man, snickering about his wife and constantly reminding him that though he may have been born and bred in Dublin, he’s not really Irish because his father was Jewish. Clinger’s Bloom is a man who seems never to be comfortable anywhere, which makes his transformation from fool to father figure near the end of the play, when he takes Dedalus under his wing, all the more remarkable and uplifting–if you can call a scene in which two men piss together against a wall uplifting.

Using a story-theater approach–minimal sets, mimed props, secondary characters in a choral role, and a large ensemble playing multiple characters–O’Brien conjures the world of 1904 Dublin nearly as completely as Joyce does in the book. The novelist liked to boast that if Dublin were ever destroyed, anyone could re-create it down to the cobblestones using Ulysses. This production isn’t quite that detailed, but you do get a good idea of why Ulysses still matters: like Molly, Joyce recognizes all the world’s pain and ugliness, the aging and disappointment and inevitable decline, and still says, “yes I will Yes.”