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Theater Review: After 18 years, the bloom is still on Broadway’s Joyce celebration

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

BLOOMSDAY ON BROADWAY XVIII, directed by Isaiah Sheffer. At Symphony Space, 95th Street and Broadway, NYC. June 16.

She took her place under the clear, gleaming stage lighting, and, settling into the comfortable chair, which had, a moment earlier, been placed on the red rug that was the area’s sole adornment, and read the first word, "Yes." The time was precisely 9:48 p.m. At 12:34 a.m., she uttered the final "yes," arguably the most famous . . . and infamous . . . "yes" in the English language, and she was finished.

It was, of course, the remarkable Irish actress Fionnula Flanagan reading the 18th and final chapter of James Joyce’ s imperishable "Ulysses," recently voted the greatest work of fiction in the English language by a committee of scholars.

Their choice would very probably have found few, if any naysayers in the capacity audience that gathered at 7 p.m. on June 16 at the recently refurbished Symphony Space to be part of "Bloomsday on Broadway XVIII."

The secret of the evening’s considerable success is suggested by that Roman numeral. This is the 18th consecutive year that Bloomsday, June 16, the day in 1904 on which "Ulysses" takes place, has placed Joyce and his genius front and center on the stage of what had once been a battered old neighborhood movie house at 95th Street and Broadway.

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Because this was the 18th running of the event, and because the book has 18 chapters, the "Bloomsday on Broadway" director, Isaiah Sheffer, decided to invite 18 actors, almost all of them "Bloomsday" veterans, assigning each of them, with the exception of Flanagan, a chapter from which a selection of approximately 10 minutes in length had been culled.

Sheffer, the Symphony Space artistic director, supplied the glue, positioned at a microphone at stage left, introducing each performer, making a comment or two about the excerpt, and then, after the reading in question, provided wry remarks on what the audience was about to hear.

Each of the first 17 readers stood before a microphone and read, while actress Flanagan’s nearly three-hour endeavor was set apart by the arrival of that chair, an accompanying footstool, and a small table bearing a pitcher of water and a glass.

Symphony Space has been graced with new chairs through the auditorium, and a subtle alteration involving the floor itself, with a slight elevation now making it easier to see the stage from the last rows than was the case in past years.

Leading off, precisely at 7 because of the discipline required by the fact that the entire evening was broadcast over radio station WNYC, at 820 on the A.M. dial, was the sonorous Fritz Weaver, reading a segment called "Morning at the Tower," from the Telemachus chapter, the celebrated "Ulysses" opening salvo.

Next came George Vogel, with "Stephen and the Schoolmaster" from the Nestor chapter, and then Rochelle Oliver, reading from Proteus a segment Sheffer and his script coordinator, Marla Monique Miller, had dubbed "Walking on the Beach."

The fourth reader was the radiant Cherry Jones, making her Symphony Space and "Bloomsday" debut with the "Bloom Makes Breakfast" sequence from the Calypso unit. She was followed by Ciaran O’Reilly with "Start of a Day’s Walking," which had been extracted from the Lotus Eaters portion of the book.

Barbara Feldon followed with an extract from Chapter 6, Hades, called "A Visit With the Dead." The next reader, Frank McCourt, offered "Newspaperman’s Oratory" from ‘olus, and was succeeded by Stephen Lang’s richly colorful performance of "What’s for Lunch?" from the Lestrygonians section of the book.

Chapter 9 was represented by Charles Keating, who read a unit Sheffer called "Our Hamlet Theory," which was a lift from Scylla and Charybdis. The Irish Rep’s Charlotte Moore read "Picking Up Some Soft Porn," which was Sheffer’s term for a little touch of the Wandering Rocks section of "Ulysses."

The 11th reader was David Margulies, who was the very first actor to have read the part of Leopold Bloom at the very first Symphony Space "Bloomsday." This time he read "Music Hath Charms," the name given to the evening’s extract from the Sirens section.

Chapter 12, Cyclops, was represented by "The Trees of Ireland," read by Sheffer and Lillo Way. Next came Terry Donnelly with "Gerty’s Fireworks," adapted from the book’s Nausicaa unit.

Malachy McCourt followed with "Drunker and Drunker," adapted from Oxen of the Sun. He was followed by Pauline Flanagan, who read "Bloom Saves Stephen," from Circe.

Chapter 16, Em’us, was represented by Elizabeth Whyte and an extract Sheffer and his team named "Homeward Bound." The penultimate chapter, Ithaca, with its famous question-and-answer sequence, was read by Sheffer and his script consultant, Miller.

And then came Fionnula Flanagan and the great "Molly Bloom Soliloquy" which, in its entirety, forms Penelope, the final chapter of "Ulysses."

Advertised to start at 9:30, Flanagan actually took her place and began only 18 minutes behind schedule, which, in addition to the appealing repetition of the evening’s symbolic number, if anyone noticed, served as evidence of the event’s admirable internal discipline.

Dressed in cream and white, with her dazzlingly blonde hair shining like a fresh snowfall under the warm lights, the actress began her superbly intelligent course through Molly Bloom’s freely associative night thoughts, material she played on stage a couple of decades ago, and has done more than once for "Bloomsday On Broadway" observations.

One of the "Bloomsday" regulars, watching from the back of the house, commented, in praise of the extraordinary Flanagan, "She really knows that lady." True enough, as was evident in every breath she took and every pause she allowed herself, stretching out on her combination chair-and-footstool, her slightly incongruous pink sandals catching the light pouring down from the Symphony Space stage housing.

Past observances have had a sometimes affectionate, often appealing feeling of casualness, with a row of folding chairs unfurled against the rear wall, and actors wandering on and off stage in what appeared to be a warmly random manner, waiting for a cue or just listening to a friend or colleague.

"Bloomsday on Broadway XVIII" was a slightly more formal affair, with just one actor at a time taking focus, standing in the center of that red rug, before a stage wall, blank except for a well-lighted display of familiar graphics drawn from "Ulysses A Vaudeville: The James Joyce Playing Cards" by Rosita Fanto, which the artist created in memory of writer and critic Richard Ellman, whose "Ulysses on the Liffey" director Sheffer cited as an admirable volume, helpful in clarifying the great Dubliner’s texts.

Above all, perhaps, this particular "Bloomsday on Broadway," with its chronological, if spotty, progress through "Ulysses," served as a fine introduction to many of the novel’s dizzying highlights.

As always with the Symphony Space’s "Bloomsday" marathons, among the most moving aspects was the fact that a number of audience members made valiant efforts to follow the text, almost in the manner in which opera fans and students often follow a Verdi or Wagner score in areas set aside for the purpose. At Symphony Space, without lighted rows or corners made available, the devoted crouched in the glow of aisle lamps or made do, sitting as close to the stage as possible, with the spill of the lighting designed to illuminate the actors as they read.

The ardor displayed by those attendees, crouching over their books, offered, perhaps, the best possible testimony in favor of the Symphony Space and its quirky beloved "Bloomsday.

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