MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Time Keeps on Shifting: Bloomsday at ACT

Marianne Owen and Sydney Andrews; photo: Chris Bennion

Marianne Owen and Sydney Andrews; photo: Chris Bennion

“Wait, I wanted to. I haven’t yet.”

In Ulysses‘ “Hades” chapter, this terse formula spontaneously occurs to Leopold Bloom: part of the copious flow of thoughts rippling through his mind as he thinks about what it’s like to die.

They could also serve as the elevator pitch for Bloomsday. Steven Dietz’s new play at ACT Theatre is an ode to the ache of regret.

Watching the burial of Paddy Dignam, Bloom ponders what the poor man must have felt at the moment he knew it was all over. The sight of his coffin prompts Bloom to embark on an internal monologue filled with such alas poor Yoricking.

“Wait, I wanted to. I haven’t yet”: those seven words “sum up” the whole mystery of life, according to Robert in one of Bloomsday‘s most poignant moments.

A 55-year-old American and a professor who has taught James Joyce for decades, Robert has ultimately arrived at a jaded view of Ulysses: as far as he’s concerned, that phrase of graveyard musing is the only bit of worth to be gleaned from what he now considers “a piece of drivel,” best used as a doorstop.

But Robert is projecting his own bitterness and regret onto Ulysses. The fear-inducing modernist classic was the topic responsible for bringing Caithleen into his life 35 years ago.

Back then Caithleen, a 20-year-old Irish loner, had a gig leading a walking tour around the Dublin spots Joyce immortalized in Ulysses. These are the locations where the novel’s external events unfold within the span of just one day, June 16, 1904, now internationally celebrated as “Bloomsday” by fans of Joyce.

Also 20, Robbie (the name Robert went by in his youth) was a greenhorn American abroad with lots of time to think about what to do with his life. Young Robbie had no clue about Joyce and was blissfully ignorant of Ulysses, a book he hasn’t even heard of.

But his attraction to Caithleen when he happened to run into her — as instant as Dante’s for Beatrice — motivated Robbie to follow along on the tour to try his chance at romance. But, as the mature Robert announces with a shudder of self-disgust, “I am made of something cold.” He let the chance slip away.

Eric Ankrim and Peter Crook; photo: Chris Bennion

Eric Ankrim and Peter Crook; photo: Chris Bennion

Bloomsday involves only these two characters, but it requires a cast of four: two actors each to play Robert and Caithleen during two phases in their lives, 35 years apart. Dietz dramatizes and puts onstage what is past tense to the middle-aged Robert and Cait (the name the older Caithleen prefers).

The play’s dramaturgical conceit is that Robert has come back to visit Cait after this long hiatus. In the process they watch and interact with their younger selves, who are reliving the day when they first met — a day that might have gone in a very different direction.

On the surface, it sounds like the makings of another formulaic rom-com, bittersweet variety, using a time-loop setup that might bring to mind Groundhog Day or even Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, with a dash of Our Town.

What Dietz actually does is to lure us into thinking we’re getting something familiar in the first act, only to push us out of that comfort zone into a deeply moving meditation on lost time, on the painful dissonance that comes with memory.

In one of the play’s most trenchant images, Robert contrasts the experience of time as a sequence of notes — the way we normally experience it, moment to moment — with time as a chord, where “all the notes are played at once.”

Bloomsday is a time-chord that pits recrimination against the yearning for resolution. The wonder of Dietz’s achievement here is to dramatize both sides so effectively, without resorting to easy sentimentality or mushy nostalgia. Robert’s existential esprit de l’escalier brushes up against Cait’s gentle acceptance of the past.

Peter Crook vividly embodies Robert’s mix of despair and cynical humor vis-a-vis his younger self and compassion for the mature Cait, whom he learns to know in a very different light.

As the latter, Marianne Owen uses gesture and understatement to imply the silent agonies and loneliness her character has lived through in the interim with haunting effect.

Dietz offers a less interesting, less developed characterization of the young Robbie — perhaps intentionally, to underscore how he is a “blank slate” at this point in his life — but Eric Antrim touches on an appealingly varied spectrum of notes, from naivete to Robbie’s dawning awareness of possibilities he hadn’t previously imagined.

Sydney Andrews gives a stunning, beautifully textured performance as Caithleen, the character Dietz develops most richly. Her Caithleen initially creates the impression of a strong-willed, confident young woman, yet we come to see her deep-rooted anxiety take hold.

Caithleen experiences time as a distressing “chord” of overlaid moments. While Dietz leaves the issue of her inherited mental condition vague — it’s meant to be both realistic and metaphorical at the same time — Andrews makes her unease and her contradictions touchingly palpable without resorting to melodrama.

Eric Ankrim and Sydney Andrews; photo: Chris Bennion

Eric Ankrim and Sydney Andrews; photo: Chris Bennion

The design work is admirably integrated: Robert Dahlstrom’s simple, efficient set of cobbled street surfaces provides the backdrop for the play’s instant shifts of scene and mood, which are enhanced by Duane Schuler’s subtle lighting and Chris Walker’s sound design.

Catherine Hunt’s costumes visually rhyme with the subtle irony of Dietz’s time-loops and overlays: the older couple is nostalgically attired in the Edwardian period dress of the fictional turn-of-century Bloomsday, while young Robbie and Caithleen carry on in “normal” clothes.

Bloomsday is the last production Kurt Beattie is directing at ACT before ending his long and fruitful tenure as the company’s artistic director. His long-term partnership with Dietz is clearly evident in the graceful, emotionally resonant cadence and tempo of his staging. (This is the 11th play by Dietz to have been premiered/produced at ACT.)

As a variation on the memory play, Bloomsday is also a strikingly fitting farewell gesture for Beattie. Dietz’s theatrical poetry, enacted by this well-knit cast, captures the intensity of experiences that pass by fleetingly and that at the same time can leave an indelible mark: the essence of theater itself.

Steven Dietz’s Bloomsday runs through October 11 at ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle (206-292-7676 or here to buy tickets online).

–(C)2015 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: ACT Theatre, review, theater

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