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Theatre in Review: Yes! Reflections of Molly Bloom (Irish Repertory Theatre)

Aedín Moloney. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

One of twentieth-century literature's greatest female characters takes the stage at the Irish Rep, and what a salty, funny, unforgettable example of Irish womanhood she is. Undaunted by the thick brick of text that is Molly Bloom's chapter -- the celebrated closing sequence of James Joyce's Ulysses - the actress Aedín Moloney and the novelist Colum McCann (Let the Great World Spin, TransAtlantic) have distilled it into a seventy-five-minute monologue, a task that, in contemplation, would make many artists lie down in exhaustion: Joyce's text runs to more than 24,000 words, divided into only eight largely unpunctuated sentences; Yes! has been most artfully filleted out of Joyce's monumental text.

And there is something so vividly alive about Molly's words that they all but cry out to be heard in a theatrical context. For that matter, Joyce's stream-of-consciousness technique, heard onstage, seems to point the way to such Samuel Beckett works as Not I. Moloney and McCann have created a highly speakable, unfailingly vivid dramatic piece; it's a cataract of words that carry us on their sheer beauty, not to mention their tactile sense of another time and place; it's a series of impressions, complaints, rhapsodies, and acid assertions, all of them adding up to an indelible portrait of Molly, Dublin housewife, sometime singer, grieving mother, and accomplished adultress.

Moloney, clearly a sorceress given the hold she exerts on the audience, mines the text for one brilliant observation after another, each of which establishes Molly as the polar opposite of the conventional middle-class Irishwoman of literature and drama. "I suppose she was pious because no man would look at her twice," she says, dismissing an elderly matron of whom her husband, Leopold (or Poldy, as she calls him), had failed expectations. Making her confession of improprieties to the prudish Father Corrigan, who timidly inquires if a man touched her "where you sit down," she notes, impatiently "O Lord, couldn't he say bottom right out and have done with it!" Carried away with memories of her lover, Blazes Boylan, she says, "He must have come three or four times, with that tremendous big red brute of a thing he has; it like iron, or some kind of a thick crowbar standing all the time."

Shifting her mood, she adds, "What's the idea of making us like that with a big hole in the middle of us? Like a stallion, driving it up into you, because that's all they want out of you, with that determined vicious look in his eye, I had to half-shut my eyes!" And there are Molly's memories of Bloom, which are alternately cold-eyed and sensual. (Overfilled with milk in her breasts following the birth of a child, she offers it to Bloom, who, she says in astonishment, "wanted to milk me into the tea!") Such passages remind one why Ulysses, in its day, was the book most likely to be smuggled into the US by tourists returning from Europe. Even today, it is startling how a male novelist, writing a century ago, so vividly imagined this frank, funny, and unashamedly detailed portrait of female sexuality.

Passage after passage sears itself into the memory: Complaining about the young ladies who replaced her at the local music hall, she describes them as "Kathleen Kearney and her lot of squealers: Miss This Miss That Miss Theother! Lot of sparrowfarts skitting around talking about politics they know as much about as my backside; anything in the world to make themselves someway interesting: Irish Homemade Beauties." Coolly commenting on the expectations of men in the bedroom, she says, "And they always want to see the stain on the bed to know you're a virgin for them; all that's troubling them. They're such fools, too. You could be a widow or divorced 40 times over. A daub of red ink would do, or blackberry juice...no that's too purply."

She muses over her daughter, gone to learn photography, and the son who died young; she lays bare her romantic memories of Gibraltar, where she spent her youth. And, briefly turning theologian, she offers this devastating assessment of her countrymen: "As for them saying there's no God; I wouldn't give a snap of my two fingers for all their learning! Why don't they go and create something; I often asked him. Atheists, or whatever they call themselves, go and wash the cobbles off themselves first. Then they go howling for the priest and they dying, and why? Why? Because they're afraid of hell on account of their bad conscience!"

Under the direction of Kira Simring, Moloney, dressed by Leon Dobkowski in a flowing white peignoir, swans about, nimbly navigating the daunting text, creating a woman of quicksilver emotions -- sharp, sensual, scathing, and, at times, strangely lonely. The actress is possessed of unflagging energy and a microscope eye for nuance; this is an extraordinary performance.

On the design side, Charlie Corcoran's set, depicting the Blooms' Dublin apartment, is unusually anonymous and lacking in detail, but Michael O'Connor's lighting is filled with subtle shifts that add a sense of visual variety. The sound design, by M. Florian Staab, includes a preshow lineup of Irish music (delivered via harp and bagpipes) as well as a handful of effects.

But any theatregoer starved for words that are lively, blessed with a touch of poetry, and sharpened by a gimlet eye for stale piety and middle-class hypocrisy, is likely to fall under Molly Bloom's spell. And if, like me, you have never quite made it through Joyce's novel, you may find yourself hankering to pick it up again. -- David Barbour

(24 June 2019)

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