Dense ‘Ulysses’ proves a daunting task for Aris

Aris Theatre’s production of “Ulysses,” a stage adaptation of the famous James Joyce novel, features Kara Cantrell and Jeffery Zwartjes.
Courtesy of Jessica Fern Hunt

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Aris Theatre’s production of “Ulysses,” a stage adaptation of the famous James Joyce novel, features Kara Cantrell and Jeffery Zwartjes. Courtesy of Jessica Fern Hunt

After the debacle that was Aris Theatre’s most recent undertaking back in January — a generally lethargic and uninspired staging of that old relic “The Importance of Being Earnest” (never mind its misguided “steampunk” motif) — practically anything would seem more notable or ingenious.

As if going from one extreme to another, the Celtic-centric company’s U.S. premiere of “Ulysses” is Irish playwright Dermot Bolger’s stage adaptation of the sprawling James Joyce novel about a 1904 day in the ordinary life of Leopold Bloom. With certain parallels to Homer’s epic poem “The Odyssey,” Joyce cast his unassuming protagonist as a modernist Everyman of sorts, whose labyrinthian exploits through Dublin depict myriad encounters with a wide-ranging array of other characters.

Told in three parts and 18 episodes, Joyce’s story was initially serialized over a span of three years (1918-20), before it was finally published (in 1922) as a complete novel that contained more than 700 pages. Understandably, indeed thankfully, Bolger’s script includes a lot of narrative condensation, but the results may befuddle theatergoers who are unfamiliar with the book.

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Kara Cantrell and Jeffery Zwartjes appear in Aris Theatre’s “Ulysses,” continuing through June 26 at 7 Stages Theatre. Courtesy of Jessica Fern Hunt

Credit: Jessica Fern Hunt

Kara Cantrell and Jeffery Zwartjes appear in Aris Theatre’s “Ulysses,” continuing through June 26 at 7 Stages Theatre.
Courtesy of Jessica Fern Hunt

Credit: Jessica Fern Hunt

Combined ShapeCaption
Kara Cantrell and Jeffery Zwartjes appear in Aris Theatre’s “Ulysses,” continuing through June 26 at 7 Stages Theatre. Courtesy of Jessica Fern Hunt

Credit: Jessica Fern Hunt

Credit: Jessica Fern Hunt

For the purposes of director Clint Thornton’s Aris production, Jeffery Zwartjes (a veteran designer and performer with the Center for Puppetry Arts) portrays the meandering Bloom. As for the vast sea of humanity he meets along his way, six supporting actors are credited for playing nearly 40 roles among them, some more memorably and distinguishably than others.

Brett Everingham stands out, principally as Stephen Dedalus, the soul-searching aspiring writer who originally served as the antihero/alter ego in Joyce’s first novel, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” So does Phil Mann in several more comedic turns, although there’s not much point in even trying to really differentiate his Bantam Lyons from his Blazes Boylan or his Alf Bergan.

That kind of ultimate irrelevance and interchangeability among their characters slightly marginalizes the rest of the Aris ensemble, too: Faina Khibkin, Patrick McColery, Carrie Poh and Rob Shaw-Smith.

Joyce’s literary classic adopted a stream-of-consciousness style, which could explain the tonal shifts in Bolger’s theatrical version. A few sequences are suddenly performed as glorified music-hall numbers, for example. Director Thornton periodically projects time stamps to indicate when different scenes are taking place, but many of the plot details are considerably less focused and frequently incoherent. References to the fight for Irish independence come out of — and then go — nowhere.

Zwartjes, as the proverbial protagonist of the piece, finally functions as a peripheral straight man instead. Meantime, in several recurring 2 a.m. monologues throughout the play, conspicuously alone in their marital bed, the true heart and soul of the story comes to be embodied by Bloom’s earthy wife, Molly, brought to compelling and passionate life in an exceptional performance by Kara Cantrell.

Aris, which has often utilized the smaller “black box” space at 7 Stages for many of its more intimate shows, is wisely mounting its unusually expansive “Ulysses” on the Little Five Points theater’s main stage. In the end, the production is more ambitious than it is rewarding, but it’s a real testament to Cantrell that in her individual moments, ironically, so little of the frenetic action unfolding amid all that extra room is ever quite as transfixing as this solitary woman contemplating life in a bed all by herself.


THEATER REVIEW

“Ulysses”

Through June 26. 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; 2:30 p.m. Sunday. $15-$30. 7 Stages Theatre, 1105 Euclid Ave. NE (in Little Five Points), Atlanta. 404-692-0053. www.aristheatre.org.

Bottom line: A perplexing stage adaptation that might be best appreciated by those already familiar with the original James Joyce novel.