Washington Stage Guild’s Bloomsday is a flower of a production. One to gaze at, listen to, and revel in, enjoying the power of words, terrific acting, connections, and confessions.
Written by Steven Dietz, Bloomsday is making its area premiere. (The play received an American Theatre Critics Association Steinberg New Play Award in 2016.) Bloomsday – a reference to the unofficial Irish holiday celebrating James Joyce’s novel Ulysses – tells the story of Robert, a man in his mid-50’s who returns to Dublin thirty-five years after meeting a young woman named Caithleen on a walking tour of James Joyce’s Dublin. He wants to reconnect and revisit their past meeting. The play unfolds through a series of neat time shifts, in which Robert meets with the younger Caithleen, his younger self, and also the older Caithleen now known as Cait. What happens as these four meet and revisit their lives is the journey of Bloomsday.
Knowledge of James Joyce’s Ulysses is not necessary. Being caught up into the century-old fervor with Joyce’s “modernist” work is not needed to just plain enjoy Bloomsday. In fact, that might well be a detriment to letting this quiet, visually minimalist, but oh so word and voice rich production grab you.
Just two quick references and then onward to the production. Steven Dietz’s ear-grabbing, refined, tantalizing literary gentleness and Kasi Campbell’s meticulously detailed directing make Bloomsday a pilgrimage into a theater experience for those wanting something uncluttered, wistful, aching for attention.
Campbell’s casting selections for the four actors playing two characters at different times in their lives are fundamental to the appreciation for Bloomsday. The actors bring individuality to each of their characters and bring a sense of stage teamwork. No one attempts to steal the spotlight from the others. They come at the production and their performances as a team. Campbell’s sense of the technical aspects of production is not to have gimmicks, but understated elegance. Let the words speak to become dreamy charmers.
Under Campbell’s touch, the actors present in a naturalistic manner; they are human beings trying to make sense of their lives. Each of the four represents individuals and their inner workings. As the production moved forward, I rooted for them.
Washington Stage Guild’s (WSG) Associate Artistic Director Steven Carpenter portrays Robert. Carpenter’s Robert comes off as a cynical “cold” character in search of something to make himself whole. As a young man, he feels he did something stupid. His life did not turn out as he hoped. Can the past be changed so the present becomes different? As Robert, Carpenter is full of wit and wonder. Cocksure one moment and on thin ice the next. He is annoyed at his younger self as he is now an older man with a strong opinion about the venerated James Joyce.
Josh Adams portrays Robbie, a young man at twenty. Adams brings a youthful energy, a fanciful charm to the production. As Robbie, he lives for the moment, on his toes ready to move, somewhere, anywhere. Being still makes him nervous. But once he does sit still, he dreams of being on the road with someone by his side. Adams portrays a young man with his future before him, generally blind to his effect on others.
Megan Anderson as Cait, a woman in mid-life, brings elegant dignity to the stage; a woman who has known many lives. Hers is the ripe portrayal of someone as a tormented presence, with good reason. Cait is someone who has lived a life of trauma, in a jumble, offering prophetic observations for those she comes in contact with, and most of all for herself. “Can’t bring back time. Like holding water in your hand.”
Danielle Scott plays the young Caithleen, at age twenty. She is at the core of the production; other characters are drawn into her gravity. Scott gives off a palpable ache even as her audience observed physical self can appear innocent. Ah, but hers is an innocence covering some heavy fears and pains, how she might live her life. Scott is an authority with her subtle, expressive posture and facial expressions. Delicate, fierce, but never showy.
The Bloomsday technical design underpins the words of playwright Dietz. Scenic designers Carl Gudenius and Jingwei Dai provide a most minimal set. There is a large image of a tattered copy of Joyce’s Ulysses at center stage; it adds both weight and lightness with its presence. Beyond that there are just a few set pieces. Nothing more to get in the way of the words. David Bryan Jackson adds sound while Marianne Meadows adds sweeps of color for mood. Costume designer Ben Kress, in his Stage Guild debut, provides each character with a genuine reflection of who they are.
WSG’s production of Bloomsday is “a feast of language and thought” as is the mission of the Washington Stage Guild. More so, it is a production for the heart. For those who might remember their own real past, and for those who might be contemplating their own future. It is a pleasurable, unselfconscious production.
Let me end with this from Mr. Joyce’s Ulysses. As I left the WSG production of Dietz’s Bloomsday, I had this in mind: “A warm human plumpness settled down on his brain. His brain yielded. Perfume of embraces all him assailed. With hungered flesh obscurely, he mutely craved to adore.”
To steal one word from Joyce, “Yes.”
Running time: About 1 hour and 45 minutes with one intermission
Bloomsday by the Washington Stage Guild plays through February 16, 2020, at Undercroft Theatre at Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, 900 Massachusetts Ave NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 900-8788 or go online.