By Joseph Hurley
BLOOMSDAY ON BROADWAY XIX, at Symphony Space, Broadway at 95th Street, NYC. Friday, June 16.
"Bloomsday on Broadway XIX," the millennial running of the annual Symphony Space commemoration of the Dublin day on which James Joyce’s "Ulysses" took place, was scheduled to begin at the former movie theater on the Upper West Side last Friday at 7 p.m. and conclude at midnight. The portion from 8-11 p.m. was to be broadcast on radio over WNYC AM 821, with Celtic harpist Kathryn Mannyng providing musical segues from start to finish.
So much for tidy scheduling. In reality, as June 16, Bloomsday all over the world for Joyceans, faded into history, the celebration was still going strong. It wasn’t, in fact, until almost 1 a.m. that actress Terry Donnelly sighed her final "Yes," bringing to a close her eloquent, but truncated, reading of the Molly Bloom soliloquy.
That stretch was, in its way, typical of the whole effort this year, which bore the subtitle, "The Poetry of Joyce," and which, in addition to dealing with items specifically written by James Joyce, attempted to be a kind of crash course in Irish verse from the 9th century to the present.
Isaiah Sheffer, artistic director of Symphony Space, tries to invest each year’s celebration with its own spin, rather than, say, a straight performance of certain portions of the book.
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The only real constant in the Symphony Space event has been the reading or performance, late at night, of Mrs. Leopold Bloom’s restless, frustrated, sexually-explicit midnight musings.
The "Molly Bloom Soliloquy" is, to put it mildly, the cherry on the Symphony Space sund’, and is what some members of the audience come for, and, in other cases, what a lot of the harder shelled hearers stay for, some of them having been in their seats for upward of five-and-a-half hours before the lascivious Molly utters her first phrases.
Friday night’s endeavor, with its stress on Irish poetry, had its plus factors and its minus aspects, chief among them being a great deal of verse reeled off by performers and non-performers, many of whom could not be said to be terribly good at it.
One perhaps unexpected dividend of this year’s idea was that the frequently desultory expanses of poetry tended to put the authentically Joycean passages in bold and positive relief.
If the long evening had its vivid moments, they were contained, for the most part, in the lifts from various portions of the book, including the Telemachus, Proteus, Calypso, Hades, ‘olus, Scylla and Charybdis, Cyclops, Wandering Rocks, Ithaca, Oxen of the Sun and Circe sections, not to mention the Penelope unit containing the surefire Molly Marathon that ends the novel.
By and large, the passion, the drama, the fire, the magnetism and, toweringly, the humor, were contained in the words and insights of James Joyce, and, fine as much of the poetry was, especially the selections from W.B. Yeats and Seamus Heaney, not so much in the verse.
The evening had begun, gently and gracefully, with brief readings from the Telemachus sequence of "Ulysses" by the unfailing trio composed of Lois Smith, David Margulies and Stephen Lang, followed by a longish portion of the books’ Proteus chapter, read by Sheffer.
The first group of poems came from an early Joyce collection, "Chamber Music," and were read by Ciaran O’Reilly, Charlotte Moore, Michael Groden, Caraid O’Brien and actress Smith, with Sheffer suggesting that the title of the volume might have a double meaning, with reference to the tinkling sound associated with the chamber pots universally used at the time the verses were composed.
At 8 p.m., the broadcast portion of the evening opened with readings from a later, ostensibly more seriously intended Joyce volume, "Pomes Pennyeach," with performers including Sarah Montague, Maren Berthelsen, Elizabeth Whyte and Christopher Lukas. The brief cluster of late poems was followed by a reading from the book’s Calypso section, rendered by Patrick Mulligan, accompanied by Montague, Lukas, O’Brien and Whyte.
Malachy McCourt and Maureen Hayes followed along with two further, apparently uncollected Joyce poems, after which came a reading from the Hades segment of "Ulysses," with Ray Gondolf and Neil Hickey making their initial appearances of the evening, accompanied by McCourt, O’Brien and Mulligan..
Then, taking center stage, McCourt delivered a particularly impassioned reading of the words to the anonymous 18th century ballad "The Croppy Boy," finishing up with a somewhat unsteady, albeit earnest, rendition of the song itself.
Then it was back to "Ulysses," with a particularly rich reading from the ‘olus sequence, featuring Fritz Weaver, one of the American theater’s greatest readers, accompanied by Aideen O’Kelly, Frederick Rolf, Rochelle Oliver, Jack Davidson, Kevin McAuliffe and, returning to the microphones, Margulies, McCourt, and Hickey.
At 9 p.m., "Bloomsday XIX" launched into what the program called "a sampling of a thousand years of Irish poetry from the 9th to the 19th centuries," a large order under any circumstances.
Here the familiar readers were joined by a phalanx of fellow actors including Donnelly, Harrison Long, Larry Keith, Helen-Jean Arthur, John Spinks, Fidelma Murphy, John Leighton, Kathleen Noone, Michael Genet, Roger H. Simon, Eugene Secunda, Tracy Ferguson and Jo McNamara.
The Scylla and Charybdis section of "Ulysses" was represented by a spirited, crowd-pleasing rendering by the redoubtable George S. Irving, followed by a solid section of the Wandering Rocks portion of the novel, performed by Margulies.
The remainder of the hour was devoted to the poetry of William Butler Yeats, the most memorable interpretations being Weaver’s moving reading of "Sailing to Byzantium," Barbara Feldon’s version of "I Am of Ireland," Rochelle Oliver’s interpretation of "The Lake Isle of Inishfree," and, perhaps especially, O’Reilly’s impassioned rendering of "Easter 1916."
At 10, the time had come for what was formally called "a sampling of some 20th century poetry," and another wave of performers, numbering no fewer than 20, took over the stage, among them Cynthia Harris, Lili Taylor, Delphi Harrington, Imelda O’Reilly and Brian Mallon.
Actor Margulies read vividly from the "Ulysses" section known as "The Oxen of the Sun," and Stephen Lang presented Yeats’s "Who goes with Fergus," a poem of unusual interest since it is referred to in "Ulysses," where it is heard, and misunderstood, by Leopold Bloom.
The hour between 11 and midnight was reserved for a unit the program called "Four Contemporary Irish Poets: Eamonn Grennan, Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, Imelda O’Reilly," with, understandably enough, a heavy emphasis on Heaney and, to an extent, on the Princeton-based Muldoon.
For the tired audience, the arrival of Molly Bloom in all her erotic beauty was worth it. At about 12:25 a.m., on Saturday, June 17, after Bloomsday had officially drawn to a close, the Irish Rep’s Terry Donnelly walked quietly to the Symphony Space microphone and delivered 20 minutes of Molly’s immortal stream of consciousness with so much clarity, wit and insight that it seemed a pity she couldn’t have done it in its complete form. Well, maybe next year.
"Bloomsday On Broadway XIX" may not have been the finest of the series, but it definitely had its highlights, and Donnelly was one of the brightest.