How it’s New York: Symphony Space is on the Upper West Side
How it’s Irish: James Joyce is one of Ireland’s preeminent writers of the 20th Century
For nearly four decades, New York has been celebrating Bloomsday on Broadway, originally created by Isaiah Sheffer, who loved the writings of James Joyce. Now in its 37th year at Symphony Space, in collaboration with the Irish Arts Center, an enthusiastic crowd gathered on June 16th for an evening dedicated to readings from James Joyce’s mighty Ulysses, and musical interludes. The literary portion was followed by drinks and more music in Bar Thalia to raise many pints to Buck Mulligan, Stephen Dedalus, Molly Bloom and company.
Although there have been all day readings of the entire book, host Mia Dillon and the merry band of performers did a fairly breezy run through the first 17 episodes. The night kicked off with a welcome from writer and actor Malachy McCourt. Dillon then spoke of Joyce’s work, explaining to novices like me that “Joyce did not set out to write an unreadable book. It’s a one-of-a-kind modernist masterpiece with themes of nationalism, art, sex, death and life. With the help of fantastic actors it makes [the text] a little less daunting. It’s another way to access Joyce’s stream of consciousness style.” To wittily illustrate how skilled the interpreters have gotten at “truncating the novel” she began with the first sentence of the book, then skipped to a passage from the Molly Bloom episode at the end, suddenly exclaiming “’Yes! Yes! Yes!’ Thank you for coming”.
The first episode, Telemachus, like many of those included, featured well known actors like Barbara Feldon as the Narrator and Malachy McCourt as Buck Mulligan along with ones that may be less familiar, such as Sam Underwood as Stephen and Amanda Quaid as Haines. Among the actors in the first half who were unknown to me, Khris Lewin, who played Bloom in Hades, and Peter Halpin as Stephen in Circe, were standouts. It was a treat to see Brian Cox, making his Bloomsday debut and Keir Dullea (who is married to Dillon), who did a pretty solid Hebrew pronunciation in Aeolus.
Before intermission there was lovely traditional folk music from violinist Dana Lyn, guitarist Kyle Sanna, Ivan Goff on pipes and vocalist Carrie Erving.
Act II was solely the Penelope episode, which is the infamous Molly Bloom soliloquy that led Ulysses to be banned and censored in many countries and is still controversial in parts of the world. Valorie Curry and Juliana Canfield were terrific in the first two parts. In the final section, Kirsten Vangsness, clad in a red negligee, brought down the house with her riveting, emotional performance.
At the after party, the spirited trio of guitarist Matt Stapleton, Dylan Foley (4-time All-Ireland Fiddle Champion), and Isaac Alderson (2002 All-Ireland Flute, Tin Whistle, and Pipes Champion) played into the night.
Having never read Ulysses, I must admit I didn’t follow everything that I was hearing on stage. However, my enjoyment wasn’t diminished by my lack of familiarity. I may never read the book but I would definitely go again and as Dillon put it, that by just having heard the first two episodes I was “further along in Ulysses than 90% of the population. Congratulations!” I’ll take it.