Still Very Much Alive

As an undergraduate at University College in Dublin, James Joyce once published an 8,000-word article on Henrik Ibsen's final play, When We Dead Awaken, that prompted the father of modern drama to dash off a sincere letter of thanks to his ardent admirer. Moved and humbled by his literary hero's gracious response, Joyce vowed to keep the words of Ibsen "in my heart all my life" and a few years later wrote Exiles, a semi-autobiographical, Ibsen-like and third-rate play about an artist who must choose between pleasing his loved ones and fulfilling his creative desires. Though Exiles was a failure and is rarely performed today, Joyce's theatrical experiment was important: Clearly unfit to join Ibsen among the first rank of dramatists, Joyce instead turned his hand to such masterpieces as Ulysses and Finnegans Wake--and in the process carved out his niche in the literary pantheon as the twentieth century's most influential novelist.

These days, many of Joyce's works are in the public domain (he died in 1941), which means the enigmatic wordsmith has the opportunity to acquire a new reputation as a first-rate novelist turned playwright. In fact, as is evident in the Hunger Artists Theater Ensemble's enchanting production of Joyce's short story The Dead, the Irishman's fabled prose packs an impressive theatrical wallop. Now on stage at the LIDA Project Experimental Theatre, the near-two-hour play is smartly directed by Jeremy Cole, who has adapted Joyce's entertaining tale into a mostly seamless, wholly engrossing reader's-theater-style piece for seven voices.

Most of the action of "The Dead," which is the last of fifteen short stories published together in 1914 as Dubliners, takes place in January 1907 during an annual holiday dance hosted by the Misses Morkans, Kate (Nancy Solomon) and Julia (Joan Staniunas), and their niece, Mary Jane (Diane Wziontka). As the stage lights illuminate a row of seven straight-backed wooden chairs and a backdrop of wood paneling and subtly patterned wallpaper, several performers dressed in period costumes enter and, directly addressing the audience, deliver Joyce's delightful narration without the trace of an Irish brogue. By contrast, during sections of dialogue, each performer assumes an accent and detailed physical mannerisms that suit each character. It's an astute choice that bridges the gap between our modern-day sensibilities and the author's account of turn-of-the-century life and also permits Joyce's rich descriptive passages to stand on their own instead of being ridiculously "adapted" into each character's nonverbal behavior. What's more, Cole and company's minimalist version enhances and personalizes the suggestive power of Joyce's incomparable imagery--augmented throughout by several of the director's well-chosen musical selections--in a splendid style that would be the envy of many a multi-media-minded auteur.

Take, for instance, the arrival of Kate and Julia's nephew, Gabriel (Curt Pesicka), which is far better described than enacted. Rather than stage an elaborate entrance complete with fake snow, distracting costume pieces and unnecessary furniture, Cole instead directs Pesicka to walk to his assigned chair and pick up his script as the actor describes his character's appearance: "A light fringe of snow lay like a cape on the shoulders of his overcoat and like toecaps on the toes of his galoshes; and as the buttons of his overcoat slipped with a squeaking noise through the snow-stiffened frieze, a cold, fragrant air from out-of-doors escaped from crevices and folds." Similarly evocative descriptions frame the ingress of other characters, such as Gabriel's wife, Gretta (also portrayed by Wziontka); a would-be ladies' man, Mr. Browne (Guy Williams); a snippy spinster, Miss Ivors (Lisa Mumpton); and a local blowhard given to explosions of "high-pitched bronchitic laughter," Freddy Malins (Dell Domnik).

For the remainder of Act One, the jubilant revelers trade witty jokes, good-natured insults and vivid observations--"A picture of the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet hung [on the wall], and beside it was a picture of the two murdered princes in the Tower which Aunt Julia had worked in red, blue and brown wools when she was a girl" is fairly typical--before retiring to the dining area (cleverly represented by set designer Michael R. Duran). Then Gabriel delivers his much-awaited dinner speech, in which he alludes to the departed of the play's title. After intermission, we're treated to more party games, an off-stage piano and vocal recital that earns "an irregular musketry of applause" (in reality, both Joyce and his father were renowned for their parlor tenors), as well as a serious tete-a-tete between Gretta and Gabriel. Shortly after entering their hotel room, Gretta haltingly tells her husband that an earlier rendition of the ballad "The Lass of Aughrim" reminded her of her abiding affection for Michael Furey, a deceased youth who was her first and, we later learn, only true love. "And what did he die of so young, Gretta? Consumption, was it?" Gabriel asks bluntly. "I think he died for me," Gretta answers plaintively.

To his credit, Cole elicits several understated portrayals from his solid cast of actors. Far from being hampered by the constraints of the small stage or hemmed in by the conventions of reader's theater itself (each actor reads from a black-bound script and rarely strays far from his or her chair), most of the performers seem liberated as they employ subtle glances, smallish gestures and slight vocal inflections to convey Joyce's soaring lyricism. True, some of the finer points of the story lose something in the translation from printed page to seated reading--the simmering, strained relationship between Gabriel and his wife, for instance, is all but lost here; in a fully staged version, the growing tension between them would be more easily communicated by their clearly discernible physical dynamic--and no one delivers a sustained portrayal of sublime dimension or virtuosic skill. Also, a few scenes suffer from an actor's unfamiliarity with the script or an awkward physical movement or two, such as when all of the performers, seemingly devoid of the grace that has marked their artful navigation through the first half of Joyce's linguistic crystal collection, lumber off stage in the half-light at the end of Act One.

Minor worries aside, Cole's sensitive approach serves as a fitting tribute to both the author's enjoyable yarn--Joyce was fond of referring to the sketches in Dubliners as "epiphanies," for their insights into life--and the ensemble's accomplished interpretation. Indeed, as the play concludes, our souls swoon with Gabriel's as he stares out an imaginary window and observes, with Ibsenesque aplomb, the "snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead."

The Dead, presented by the Hunger Artists Theater Ensemble through February 13 at the LIDA Project Experimental Theatre, 80 South Cherokee Street, 303-893-5438.

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