By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
… “that girl there … and would you — would you please just for a minute — would you please see that girl there?” — Robert in Bloomsday, by Steven Dietz
“What would you say to your younger self if you had the chance?” says Coralie Cairns of the play that opens Thursday in the Shadow Theatre season.
Bloomsday, a time-bending 2015 play by the American writer Steven Dietz, gives a middle-aged couple exactly that chance: it puts them onstage with the younger version of themselves, at the chance moment they first met 35 years before.
“Missed opportunities, the what-if’s of our lives,” says director John Hudson of the cross-hatched love story that wraps itself around the past, present, and future in a particularly soulful Irish way. It’s named for the annual June celebration in Dublin in honour of the Irish writer James Joyce, and his famous (and famously unread) novel Ulysses. It follows, in 18 dauntingly unpunctuated stream-of-consciousness episodes, the perambulations of one Leopold Bloom through Dublin on June 16, 1904.
In the play, an older couple, Robert (John Sproule), grouchy, professorial and in his ‘50s, returns to Dublin to seek out Cait (Cairns), the woman he’d fallen for three and a half decades before as she led a Bloomsday walking tour. The older couple relive their 20-year-old selves, and the unplanned moment young Caithleen (Alexandra Dawkins) cajoles a young man, Robbie (Chris Pereira) passing by to join her tour. Can time loop backwards? Can the past be re-captured? Can the future be changed?
And speaking as we are of time as a loop and not a one-directional continuum, Hudson’s Shadow production reunites Cairns with long-time stage partner and old friend Sproule, a theatre couple with a Shadow history that goes back to the earliest days of the company in the ‘90s. They met in Shaun Johnston’s gritty Catching the Train,“the first Shadow production outside the Fringe,” as Hudson recalls, and a defining show for the fledgling company.
Theirs is a wildly diverse history. Audience faves, Cairns and Sproule returned to Shadow audiences again and again together, in such productions as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Much Ado About Nothing, (Paula Vogel’s) Baltimore Waltz, revivals of David Belke’s The Reluctant Resurrection of Sherlock Holmes — and most recently as brother and sister in Christopher Durang’s Chekhov re-set Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.
Since the early days of the artist-run troupe, a co-op before it became a company, Cairns started doing the books (a skill she’d picked up as one of the three co-owners of the High Level Diner). Then she became Shadow’s general manager, and retired from that post last year to return to the stage — “I missed performing!” Ah, but not before she’d shared an office with actor Dawkins, Shadow’s first “artistic director fellowship” candidate, who “plays the younger me” (as Cairns puts it) in Bloomsday.
Which brings us to the actorly challenge of pairing a younger and an older version of the same character onstage. “I’ve never done that before,” says Cairns. It’s an intricacy that’s enhanced by the way that the older couple aren’t just observers of their past selves. The the older Cait and the younger Robbie also have scenes together, ditto the old Robert and the younger Caithleen.
“It’s a dance,” laughs Cairns.“My first time reading the script, I was ‘what IS this? Whose reality is it? Whose memory is it?’ And that’s true of every single character. Everybody in the cast has their own perspective.”
Both Hudson and Cairns hasten to assure us that, the play title notwithstanding, you don’t need to have read Ulysses to enjoy a play “full of heart and humour,” as the former says. After all, if theatre were limited to audiences who have actually read Ulysses, it might as well lock the stage door and turn out the lights.
The playwright has lifted lines right from Ulysses here and there, including from Molly Bloom’s lengthy, ultra-sensual, much celebrated soliloquy at the end of the novel. But Bloomsday “is not about James Joyce. He’s the MacGuffin,” a hefty one at that, as Hudson says. He points to the initial scenes of the play, in which Robert interrupts a Bloomsday tour with his objections to the Irish star writer, mocking that “doorstop of an opus” as literature’s most over-rated and under-read.
The playwright has said in interviews that he’s become increasingly drawn to write fork-in -the-road plays. And that description certainly fits Bloomsday. Hudson, a long-time admirer of Dietz’s work, says of the play that it’s brimming with “might-have-beens.… Every choice has ramifications.”
But this puzzle of a play “is not all about that,” says Hudson. “The play sparkles with hope.” Cairns echoes the thought: “the hope of maybe.” After all, the last word in Ulysses is Yes. “Yes I said yes I will Yes.”
Written by: Steven Dietz
Directed by: John Hudson
Starring: Coralie Cairns, John Sproule, Alexandra Dawkins, Chris Pereira
Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.
Running: April 27 to May 15