Elevator Repair Service Adopts & Adapts Ulysses

by Kevin T McEneaney

Elevator Repair Service, an experimental Soho acting troupe founded in 1991, launched its theatrical production of Ulysses by James Joyce at the Luma Theater of Bard College. This production is boisterous, flamboyant, and provocative.

The virtue of this production is that it communicates James Joyce’s surrealist satire on backward, ignorant Dublin life. The production delivers an unusual perspective of entry into the surrealistic novel Ulysses, especially its whimsy, dark humor, madcap pace, and trenchant ebullience amid chaos as Dublin and its inhabitants stumble through a living inferno, a circus-like hall of mirrors with no exit. Ulysses (1922) inspired Jean-Paul Sartre to adapt the concept, technique, sociology, and psychology with a Paris milieu for his noted play No Exit (1944).  

Running just under 90 minutes, there is only so much that this production can cover in a mammoth, legendary book. Some short passages of brilliant poetry emerge from the fog of dedicated social inanity. Yet, the production does not feature the impressive reversal of perspective that the novel delivers in shifting the male-dominated society of Dublin to the feminine perspective of a single woman, Molly Bloom, who offers a personal frame of reference with passionate intelligence and humor in her critique of male behavior and sensibility. At the same time, Molly locates memory as the sentimental tragic heart of poetry amid the drab details of life.

There is no attempt to capture the lilting comedy of a Dublin accent, yet this is just as well since that accent would likely not be clear to an audience in this country. The climax of the production centers on racial bigotry in general and anti-Semitism in particular, which remains one of the prophetic aspects of this novel which paints a large sociological canvas but concludes with the stream-of-consciousness of Molly Bloom, the tragedy of a woman who has endured the early death of an only child. I was disappointed that I did not hear more of Molly Bloom’s extraordinary monologue.

The production includes much bawdy, amusing blasphemy, and the ridicule of small-minded, bloated egos. It is merciful that the self-satiric portrait of the author as a burgeoning Shakespearean scholar with lunatic theories about Hamlet is minimized. The mix of narration and action presents good pacing. The electronic superscript of text serves as a dramatic form of punctuation and is at first amusing, although its repetitious and genial use eventually evolves into a second-hand gimmick.

Seven actors performed multiple roles. Scott Shepard as Buck Mulligan and Blazes Boylan was most impressive. Maggie Hoffman performs numerous roles for both sexes with astonishing ease. Vin Knight, as both Leopold Bloom and Mr. Deasy, offered deft balance with a nuanced, droll performance. Stephanie Weeks handled a lengthy roll call of minor characters and episodes with superb, arresting diction. Christopher-Rashee Stevenson as the young Stephen Dedalus was good, although he displayed more deference than arrogance. Dee Beasnael enjoyed six roles as did Kate Benson, only one of which was a female.

The machine that performs the finale will have already read your mind.

This witty production, directed by visionary founder John Collins, runs through July 14. Tickets are available at Ulysses – Fisher Center at Bard.

Kevin T McEneaney

Author of Hunter S. Thompson: Fear, Loathing, and the Birth of Gonzo, and other books