By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
A rosy glow suffuses the Varscona stage (designer: Even Gilchrist): it’s either dawn or dusk, nearly day or nearly night, in a Dublin that’s both real and literary. And the sound (designer: Dave Clarke) is a double-proposition, too: oldie-timie Irish cut with modern edges.
As one of the four characters in Bloomsday says, “it’s no o’clock.” Those indelible moments in life that are time-less, that stop time in a past that never quite recedes and a present that never quite moves on, is at the heart of the (very) intricately wrought time-looping 2015 play by the American writer Steven Dietz.
[As a counter-argument, Shadow Theatre’s production is back (through Sunday) after its week’s pause for COVID that, luckily, didn’t stop time. And I’m coming very late to it.]
Anyhow, the production, directed by John Hudson, returns with gusto. It opens with a blast of intensity (and volume) that nearly topple the early scenes, in which a pompously irascible American literary prof of middle years returns to Dublin after 35 years. He’s in search of a woman he’d met by chance, fallen for, and lost, 35 years before — and his own callow 20 year-old self.
It was on a walking tour of James Joyce hotspots. Caithleen (Alexandra Dawkins) had been the guide, leading visitors on one of those Bloomsday walk-abouts that follow the ramblings through the city of Leopold Bloom, protagonist of Joyce’s dauntingly complicated (and famously unread) novel Ulysses, “his doorstop of an opus” as Robert (John Sproule) puts it. And Robbie (Chris Pereira) had been enlisted for the tour by the random chance that he was there, looking at a map, when Caithleen needed to boost her tour number to 14.
The play is a virtuoso series of duets, trios and quartets, some of them addressed to the other characters onstage, and some of them to the audience as you come to realize, and some of them both (I think, it’s confusing). Bloomsday gives Robert and Cait (Coralie Cairns) the chance to meet up with their younger selves, Robbie and Caithleen, and re-visit and re-assess the might-have-been moment, full of possibility and frozen in time lo these many years.
The play’s dramatic infrastructure is almost too abstract and intricate to be poignant; it’s more analytical than that. And complications about choice and fate are further complicated when we learn that Caithleen can foretell the future, a dark and death-centric view of life (the cliché would be that it’s Irish) that unnerves the young man she meets. Cait, her older self, who thinks of time as “a jumble,” says that “every woman knows the future if she’s got the nerve to look.” And she can’t help having the nerve.
It’s for the actors to inhabit this elaborate set-up with flesh-and-blood characters. And they do. In Hudson’s production Dawkins and Pereira play off each other in a way that charms with its youthful chemistry. Caithleen, in Dawkins’ performance, is an impulsive, quick-witted original. And Robbie scrambles to catch up, his reactions convincingly delayed in Pereira’s amusingly timed and judged performance.
As Sproule conveys in a performance full of regret turned sour, Robert is sadder, wiser, more pissed off. He’s scathing in his criticism of his younger self, and the self he’s taken into a future he’s found wanting. As played by Cairns, Cait is the play’s most mysterious character, a gentler, more amused, less judgmental character than young Caithleen. She seems to have turned the terrible gift of prophecy into a sense of inevitability, maybe even absurdity.
You can go back to a place, but Bloomsday wants to know if you can go back to a time. Can you pick up where you left off? Can you unlock a moment? Do you only get one chance to land the love of your life? That, my friends, is the story. And you don’t have to read Ulysses to find out.
Written by: Steven Dietz
Directed by: John Hudson
Starring: Coralie Cairns, John Sproule, Alexandra Dawkins, Chris Pereira
Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.
Running: through Sunday