By James Joyce
Directed by Kevin V. Smith
Produced by Theatre Y
At the Lacuna Artist Lofts
I miss that stupid ache
James Joyce began writing Exiles near the beginning of the First World War; rejected by W. B. Yeats for production at his Abbey Theatre in Dublin and critically panned as derivative of Ibsen, it was not performed by a major theater until a 1970 production directed by Harold Pinter. Theatre Y now re-evaluates and re-imagines this play in their new space in Pilsen.
It is the not un-biographical story of an Irish writer and his common-law wife and child returning to Ireland after years spent abroad in Italy. He reconnects with old friends, two cousins whom he has known since his youth; but there are troubling love-triangles amongst the four of them.
It is an interesting play, the only play Joyce ever wrote, and one that is seldom performed. So that, in and of itself, makes Theatre Y’s production a curiosity. But their staging of it makes it something to really see. The women in the play all dress up like drag queens, exaggerated makeup and ornate poses and clothes. There is even lip-syncing to a song at the end of each act. The costumes, makeup, and set all create this bizarre world, within which characters refuse to look at each other, staring straight at the audience, or start trembling and convulsing, throwing tables and chairs, and behaving in generally outlandish and weird manners. It’s sort of like Priscilla, Queen of the Desert on a very heavy Ibogaine trip. And it works so well. Director Kevin V. Smith allows some metaphors to play out, physically, before our eyes: Beatrice Justice (played by the haunting Daiva Bhandari), for instance, starts backing into a wall when she feels trapped by Richard Rowan (convincingly portrayed by Rafael Franco), the returning writer; Rowan and Robert Hand (the deft and subtle David Bettino), Rowan’s dear friend and Beatrice’s cousin, literally play tug of war for the affections of Rowan’s wife, Bertha (Melissa Hawkins, who is excellent); and in the third act, the women all react to a tok-ing, while the men do not, symbolizing, perhaps, their confinement, and the limited time they have to be young and beautiful and desirable, while the men are deaf to it, free. Perhaps because that is only one interpretation – in fact, all of those are merely interpretations – in a play in which symbolism is manifest and manifold. The mask that Beatrice starts wearing on the back of her gown – does that mean that she is two-faced? or that, like Janus, she sees both the future and the past? It’s a real pleasure watching this play, thinking about this play. It is a work that asks you to walk to a nearby pub and converse over it, with it. In fact, there is a talk-back after every show, something Theatre Y is focused on, and so there is plenty of opportunity for intellectual stimulation directly following the piece.
It has beautiful, powerful moments. The stand-out of which would have to be the ending of the second act, before intermission, when Bertha sings Fiona Apple’s “Not About Love;” the choreography is visceral and raw, and may create the piece’s most powerful scene. (And, even though, to my mind, the Jon Brion version is superior to the album cut, the latter makes much more sense here, with its driving beat and animal emotions.)
No, it is not theatre for everyone; those slaves to realism should not go – they would not understand. But this theatre, like both works playing next door, is asking you to expand your theatrical tastes and knowledge, and does so kindly yet unapologetically, eagerly yet well. It is, on the whole, a good trip.
Reviewed on 5.2.11
For full show information, visit TheatreinChicago.
At Lacuna Artist Lofts, 2150 S. Canalport Rd, Chicago, IL; for tickets, go to theatre-y.com; performances May 5-8, 15, 21, June 9 & 16, July 8 & 30, Aug. 1, 13, and 27; all performances at 7:30 except July 30, Aug. 13 & 27, at 1pm, followed by the next two in Theatre Y’s “Exiled” series; tickets $10-20; running time 2 hours 45 minutes.