By Samuel L. Leiter
Brenda Maddox died on June 16. I begin with that news because it eerily coincides with the production of Yes! Reflections of Molly Bloom, a mesmerizing one-woman play now playing in the Irish Rep’s tiny W. Scott McLucas Studio Theatre. Maddox was the renowned biographer of Nora Barnacle, wife of famed Irish author James Joyce.
Nora was the inspiration for Molly Bloom, the wife of Leopold Bloom in Joyce’s landmark 1922 novel, Ulysses, brilliantly incarnated in Yes! by Irish actress Aedín Moloney, visiting from across the pond. Moreover, the day Maddox died, June 16, was Bloomsday, still celebrated annually in Joyce’s honor throughout the world.
Yes! Reflections of Molly Bloom is an adaptation by Moloney and Pulitzer-winner Colum McCann (Let the Great Word Spin) of “episode” 18, the final one, in Joyce’s notoriously difficult, controversial (it was long the subject of censorship) novel. Often called “Penelope,” after the faithful wife of Homer’s hero, Ulysses, the episode (Joyce avoided using “chapters”) compresses its eight remarkably long, almost entirely unpunctuated, stream-of-consciousness sentences into an hour and 15-minute performance.
Yes! isn’t the first spoken performance of the material, which has given other actresses juicy literary red meat to savor, but it would be hard to match Moloney’s extraordinary ability to blend exquisite movement with passionate, yet humorous, feeling, gorgeous vocal richness, and penetrating comprehension. With superlative support from the music of Paddy Moloney, her father (founder and leader of the Grammy-winning The Chieftans), she provides a must-see performance even for those who’ve never read Ulysses.
The setting is the Blooms’ Dublin, Ireland, bedroom in the wee hours of June 17, 1904. Charlie Corcoran, so adept at designing the Irish Rep’s minutely detailed realistic rooms, offers here an odd, modernistic setting of variously shaped, bluish-gray walls and scenic elements. Several seats in what would be an upstage corner give the space a three-quarters-round effect. A strange, bluish panel that I thought at first was a TV screen is actually a window, and an arched closet door helps make the place look like an underwater bunker. The only props are a white wash basin, a chamber pot, a man’s hat, and a few items of clothing hanging in the closet.
During Nora’s interior monologue, filled with sexual images and colorfully crude, often scatological, language spoken in a musical brogue, she talks about many things. Among them are adulterous sex with Blazes Boylan; her bedroom life with “Poldy” (her affectionate nickname for Leopold); masturbation; male genitalia; men’s preoccupation with taking a girl’s virginity; her menstrual flow (she even employs a chamber pot for this); the intimate questions of her priest and doctor; stylish clothes, her breasts and their milk thick enough for tea; different sexual encounters and lovers; her 15-year-old daughter, Milly; atheists; and Poldy’s proposal, 16 years before.
Notably, she even comments on women’s superiority to men, as in, “I don’t care what anybody says itd be much better for the world to be governed by the women in it you wouldn’t see women going and killing one another and slaughtering.”
Even if you know that Ulysses was considered pornographic, some of its images can still shock, especially when you see them mimed or hear them embedded in the words of a turn-of-the-century, middle-class, Irish wife. Speaking of Boylan’s endowment, for instance, she notes: “he must have come three or four times with that tremendous big red brute of a thing he has I thought the vein or whatever the dickens they call it was going to burst through his nose.”
Wearing a long, billowing nightgown (designed by Leon Dobkowski) with a tight bodice that pushes her fulsome breasts to extremis (eventually, they get totally released from bondage), Moloney wraps thin shawls about her with creative variations. Under Kira Simring’s inspired staging, she expresses Nora’s feelings in a succession of statuesque poses and attitudes, making full use with her body of Corcoran’s curving and cylindrical abstractions, her sculptural beauty enhanced by Michael O’Connor’s delicate lighting.
Throughout, Moloney exudes erotic desire, squeezing her breasts, rubbing her crotch, or thrusting her bottom. She’s sensual, seductive, lustful, passionate, coy, witty, and melancholy, each transition distinctly expressed physically, emotionally, and verbally. Fascinatingly, she’s realistic and poetic, earthy and elevated, in the same breath.
The play’s title comes from the soliloquy’s beginning and ending with the word “yes.” Here, it’s used only at the end, as Molly recalls making love with Poldy in Gibraltar when he proposed: “would I . . . yes . . . to say yes my Mountain Flower . . . and I put my arms around him yes . . . and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume . . . yes . . . and his heart was going like mad and yes I said, yes I will . . . yes . . . .”
To which I can only repeat: yes.
Yes! Reflections of Molly Bloom. Through July 7 at the Irish Repertory Theatre (132 West 22nd Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues). www.irishrep.org
Photos: Carol Rosegg