Home Atlanta News Review: Arís’ production makes Joyce’s 1922 “Ulysses” alive for the times

Review: Arís’ production makes Joyce’s 1922 “Ulysses” alive for the times

by Atlanta Business Journal

(Editor’s Note: On Wednesday, Arís Theatre announced that it was canceling this week’s remaining performances of Ulysses after some cast members tested positive for Covid.)

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Arís Theatre’s production of Ulysses, adapted from James Joyce’s doorstop of a novel, is brazen, complex and risky. Onstage at 7 Stages it is, thankfully, also fun and full of emotion.

In theater, well-executed ambition is a virtue to be celebrated above all others. It’s tempting for theaters to appeal to audiences with cozy shows that offer pure escapism, particularly in the season of a seemingly fading pandemic. But it is also necessary for art to hold up a mirror to who we are, as unsettling as that reflection can be. Shows should justify themselves when they hit the stage.

To their credit, several shows in Atlanta have felt revelatory that these past months, including the vibrant production of Bootycandy at Actor’s Express, Horizon Theatre’s searing production of The Light and Toni Stone at the Alliance Theatre. Those shows spoke truths, challenging audiences to consider their biases and traumas to face who we are now.

Arís Theatre is staging Irish playwright Dermot Bolger’s 2012 adaption of James Joyce’s 1922 epic “Ulysses,” which is set in 1904 Dublin.

Joyce’s Ulysses is a century old. It deals with the prejudices, vices, religious beliefs and sexual impulses of a deeply strange set of people. The 730-page book was published in 1922, and it reflects on an ordinary day in Dublin in 1904. Why this story? Why now?

Because Ulysses is a story of home, and it includes all the layers of feelings you can have about your home. You can get frustrated and bored when every day in town feels the same, yet there’s a comfort and confidence baked into knowing the streets you walk and who you’ll find there.

This play depicts a city that cares for its citizens, even as it frustrates the heck out of them. This Dublin is full of personality, joy, secrets and gossip. There’s drinking, singing, lust and fistfights.

There’s nonstop talk and new happenings at all hours of the day. Arís’ production centers on the cuckolded, womanizing and perverse Leopold Bloom (Jeffery Zwartjes) and the brooding, haunted Stephen Dedalus (Brett Everingham). Both men seem to want to escape to new adventures outside Dublin. Bloom’s writing letters to woo new lovers and trying to ignore gossip about his unfaithful wife, Molly, played with wit and spark by Kara Cantrell. Dedalus wants to break free of the memory of his dead mother.

Yet the community of townsfolk that surrounds and confounds the two men, never giving them a moment’s peace as they try to drown their sorrows, makes an equally profound impression on the audience. The five other performers — Phil Mann, Patrick McColery, Rob Shaw-Smith, Faina Khibkin and Carrie Poh — embody dozens of different individuals, throwing on a variety of hats, costumes, accents and personalities. Their persistent, collective presence makes the biggest impact.

Clint Thornton’s direction often places the group uncomfortably close together behind a bar, cheering on a horse race or huddled together in prayer. Conceived by Thornton, the set includes hidden nooks behind stacks of crates, random junk or even a piano where these cast members can disappear, quickly change costumes and reemerge. The show even uses found-object puppetry to let Shaw-Smith play a noisy, persistent dog, built from metal household items.

Each of these performers get shining moments, such as McColery’s sudden ballad in the middle of the first act or Khibkin’s teenage girl who impulsively decides to tempt Bloom.

Jeffrey Zwartjes as Leopold Bloom, with Cantrell, “keeps the audience firmly on Bloom’s side, even when the character gets up to some shenanigans,” ArtsATL critic Benjamin Carr writes.

Like the characters Leopold and Stephen, the audience is never alone. We get caught up in the stories of these other people as we are shown new hours of this day. Some of the characters appall and irritate us with their small-minded prejudices, yet we get caught up in their little dramas despite ourselves.

This gives the play an urgency and an intimacy. It gives the audience a place that feels specific and familiar, even if it is not our town. Coming out of isolation, there’s a comfort in that.

Ulysses also seems to be showing us the unity our modern community has lost. Disagreements don’t carry an underlying sense of neighborly regard anymore. There is less human connection now. Joyce’s world feels safer by comparison.

Joyce’s language isn’t easy to decipher, yet there is a clarity to the staging of events, thanks to timestamps that are projected onstage. Dermot Bolger’s script streamlines Joyce’s prose and makes it more approachable. And exposition in the dialogue lets us know whether we’re at a funeral or a brothel. There are so many locations and characters depicted, yet it never gets terribly confusing.

Zwartjes keeps the audience firmly on Bloom’s side, even when the character gets up to some shenanigans. Everingham keeps Stephen appealing, as well, even as the character wallows in pity and doom.

Tying the entire day together is Molly Bloom, alone in her bed, peppering her funny, frustrated narration throughout the tale. Molly considers her possible lovers, waits on her husband, mourns her lost son and reflects on her lost youth. She speaks of her desires, her disappointments, her talents and her power.

The character stands apart from the larger community of the show, but her thoughts on passion and marriage add thematic layers to everything that occurs between her husband and the town.

Cantrell delivers dynamite monologues in the first act. And the whole show reaches its climax with a rousing, uninterrupted showstopper of a speech from her.

With its dialects, detours and time jumps, Ulysses isn’t an easy play. But because of its beating heart and the daring of Arís Theatre’s artists, it’s a profound and embraceable one.

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Benjamin Carr, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, is an arts journalist and critic who has contributed to ArtsATL since 2019. His plays have been produced at The Vineyard Theatre in Manhattan, as part of the Samuel French Off-Off Broadway Short Play Festival, and the Center for Puppetry Arts. His novel Impacted was published by The Story Plant in 2021.

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