Amazing Bloom

My reaction to Germinal Stage's "Circe" -- Chapter Fifteen was a lot like my reaction to James Joyce's Ulysses in general. It began with impatience and drifting attention. Then I found myself fascinated and riveted as the play evoked a stream of ideas and emotions that flowed by faster than I could identify or classify them (though on one level the images and concepts were very familiar), all that grotesque and hilarious stuff about sex, shame, religion, transsexuality, myth, politics, food, lust, greed, shame, sex, religion, dirt, nightmares, hunger, violence, justice, darkness, religion, shame, sex...and then an ending that was, well, almost touching and did provide a kind of resolution.

When I was seventeen, I saw a version of Chapter 15 called Ulysses in Nighttown in Paris. It starred Zero Mostel as ad salesman Leopold Bloom. I didn't really understand a word of it, but I still have a resonant memory of a fat man on trial, bellowing and wallowing about the stage, full of greasy, rumpled, passionate, wordy, windy vitality. I believe I took a stab at the novel itself about two years later, and I honestly can't remember how far I got, or even whether I finished. I do know I got past the fourth and fifth chapters, where Bloom cooks up a kidney and then has a long, satisfying session on the toilet. I always remember stories that involve food.

Ulysses has been proclaimed one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century, but there are not many people who have read it all the way through. The story is simple enough, a recounting of a day in Bloom's life as he wanders Dublin, obsesses about his wife's infidelity and connects with the young Stephen Dedalus, whom most of us know from the far shorter and more accessible A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Or rather, it's not a recounting, but a stream-of-consciousness representation of Bloom's mental processes through that day, rich in puns, metaphors, allegorical riffs, allusions, fragments of liturgy, drama or poetry, bits of Shakespeare and even Gilbert and Sullivan, with the mythic voyage of Ulysses providing a template for Bloom's peregrinations and also an ironic backdrop/commentary. Needless to say, scholars have picked apart every line. Reading patches of the book, even now I find myself veering among several responses: that this is pretentious twaddle; that it's a masterpiece; that someone is having a fine old joke at the reader's expense, but it would be rather nice to be in on it; that Ulysses is the work of an artist whose daring, imagination and understanding simply outstrip everyone else's.

Joyce wrote Chapter 15 of Ulysses in the form of a script, but it's not exactly performable: It's too long and unwieldy, too filled with images that could be realized only on film. The Germinal version has been adapted for the stage by producer-director Ed Baierlein.

The staging is straightforward, with all the actors except Bloom and Dedalus playing multiple roles and reading Joyce's stage directions in turns. Periodically, one or the other proclaims, "Realistic interval" or "Hallucination begins," but the hallucination never really stops, and the realistic intervals aren't.

Bloom has followed Dedalus into Dublin's red-light district, which becomes a kind of hell, a passage through the underworld. (In Ulysses, Circe is the enchantress who turns men into swine.) He knows his wife, Molly, is cheating on him. He has feverish, self-loathing fantasies; in one of them, he is put on trial for lust. The accusations are lewd, devastating, furious and nonsensical, and Bloom is exposed and humiliated. He's punished, metaphorically castrated. He circumnavigates the stage in various ways, including on his stomach. He becomes a woman and, cradled in the arms of a whore, gives birth to eight children. Later, he will assume a similar pose, cradling an injured Dedalus while he remembers his own son, who died in infancy.

Then there's Dedalus, who flies into a passion in a whorehouse, smashes a chandelier with his walking stick and is assaulted by a British soldier as he runs out. The final scene, in which Bloom comforts Dedalus, is reminiscent of the Pietà, the Christ reference augmented by Bloom's fantasy image of his son with a "white lambkin" peeping from his pocket.

The Germinal production is a huge achievement -- disciplined, intelligent and respectful. Within the small confines of an evening at the theater, it manages to communicate the unwieldy, magnificent uncontainability of Joyce's novel. All of the actors -- Petra Ulrych, Tad Baerlein, Thomas Borrillo, Sallie Diamond, Suzanna Wellens, Catherine Duquette, Eric Victor and Ed Baierlein -- give fine performances, but it's Terry Burnsed as Bloom who astonishes. Burnsed is slender and small, closer in body type to Joyce himself than to such traditional Blooms as Zero Mostel. He manages the difficult feat of making the character simultaneously ascetic and self-indulgent, anguished and funny, powerless and the fulcrum of all the action. It's a masterly performance.