BWW Review: BLOOMSDAY at Washington Stage Guild

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BWW Review: BLOOMSDAY at Washington Stage Guild

If there's a D.C. theater company that would approach presenting James Joyce, it'd be the literary-minded Washington Theatre Guild, which has made its mark by presenting everything written by George Bernard Shaw, among other ambitious projects.

But its latest production, "Bloomsday," is something that is more circling in the neighborhood of Joyce, and in particular his master opus "Ulysses."

Indeed, the seasoned protagonist we first meet on stage, not far from an oversized well-worn copy of the text, berates the novel, which he found impossible to read and even tougher to teach. "Under-read and over-appreciated," he sneers.

You would think he would have a little more affection for it, since it also was the basis of a singular moment in his life - meeting a lively Irish lass who roped him into joining her Joycean tour in Dublin.

He spent his time taking pictures of her, rather than the historic milestones along the way, and they shared a meal and their dreams in a cafe later. But then they parted and they never saw one another again.

The basis of Steven Dietz's play has Robert, now 55, going back to the place where he met that woman that haunted his thoughts in the intervening 35 years since the day when they both met at 20.

What's handed down from Joyce, though, is the idea that time is not a set of points on a endless line, but more like something played like a chord, happening all at once.

That means the elder Robert (Steven Carpenter) can run into his 20-year-old self (Josh Adams) and attempt to talk a little sense into him. "Go after her!" he implores. "Tuck in your shirt!"

He can run into the young girl he remembers, Caithleen (Danielle Scott), and tell her to give the American boy she'll run into a chance. And ultimately he can meet the now grown Cait (Megan Anderson) for their emotional reckoning.

Dietz's nimble combinations make what might have been a more literary-minded than usual Hallmark romance into a more deeply touching and surprisingly effective work. And it's all made possible by a solid cast under deft direction of Kasi Campbell.

On the simple set by Carl Gudenius and Jingwei Dai, framed by dozens of Dublin postcards and dominated by that giant "Ulysses" scrim, which makes for the magical entrance of characters from other points in time, the action plays sufficient to fill out a two act play.

The cliffhanger in act one has a man in a strangely old fashioned costume suddenly appearing but it turns out to be only Carpenter's character, in a period costume for Bloomsday - June 6, 1904, the day when all the action occurs to Molly Bloom and the two other characters in "Ulysses," a day still celebrated by Joyce fans with oral readings of the tome each year on that date.

Carpenter creates a credible, elder romantic, who may cuss too much for a former teacher and connects directly with the Stage Guild audience, whose median age and hairline roughly match his own.

As the young tour guide, Scott exudes the kind of a spirit a young American might well fall for, and Adams is just right as the rather blank young college kid who is stricken but doesn't quite know what to do about it.

Anderson almost doesn't look quite old enough to be the 55-year-old Cait, but she matches her silvery allure with a world-wise knowingness enough to realize that a youthful crush shouldn't be instantly taken seriously three and a half decades later.

Like Adams, Anderson is new to the Stage Guild, having done the bulk of her acting as a resident of Baltimore's Everyman Theatre (I was excited to find that she also appeared in three seasons of "The Wire" on HBO as Mayor Carcetti's wife).

Of the creative team involved, Ben Argenta Kress gets a chance to be creative with the Bloomsday costumes; and while sound director David Bryan Jackson uses the usual scene-setting Irish music, there is also an innovative thrumming used to punctuate a chase scene.

"Bloomsday" has an unexpected emotional punch that seems perfectly designed to land squarely on the Stage Guild crowd. That it also has a glancing connection to literary history is frosting on an already agreeable Irish tea cake.

Running time: About one hour and 45 minutes with one intermission.

Photo credit: Megan Anderson, Danielle Scott and Steven Carpenter in "Bloomsday." Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

"Bloomsday" runs through Feb. 16 at the Washington Theatre Guild, operating at the Undercroft Theatre of Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, 900 Massachusetts Ave. NW. Information at 203-900-8788 or online.

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From This Author Roger Catlin