Once Upon a Time and a Very Good Play It Was: Alive Theatre’s “Lucia Mad”

Posted on Saturday 21 June 2008

By Greggory Moore
(originally published in The District Weeklywww.thedistrictweekly.com)

If you are turned off by fictional reweavings of true events, and if on top of that you cut your literary teeth on James Joyce and consider Samuel Beckett a personal hero, aside from running the risk of being accused of pretentious snob, you might attend a fledging theatre group’s production of Lucia Mad with trepidation. But if it’s Alive Theatre’s version of this Don Nigro play about Joyce’s disturbed daughter and her unrequited love for Beckett, fear not!

Lucia is perforce her father’s woman-child: myriad-minded, sardonic, simultaneously brooding and full of life, idiosyncratic as all get-out, and never, ever able to get comfortable in her own skin. And despite the literary giants sharing the stage, Lucia Mad is she. The framing device of the play is one of access to the labyrinth of her mind via a seamless interweaving of fourth-wall-breaking narrative and episodic drama (or comedy, as the case may be), moving us through the avenues of her 20s much as Joyce moves us through the streets of Dublin in Ulysses. Early in that odyssey Lucia encounters Beckett—shy, ill-at-ease, brilliant . . . What better siren to attract James Joyce’s daughter? Nigro runs apace with this premise—the bare bones of which are true—presenting us with a tale of how all the intelligence in the world cannot save you from the Scylla and Charybdis of your unrealizable hopes and the delimited creature you must always be. James, Samuel, Lucia—by their natures, all must end in failure; and Lucia is left to fantasize herself as a reverse-muse, his “agenbite of inwit” (i.e., remorse of conscience—a phrase from her father’s masterwork) over having denied haunting/inspiring Beckett’s lifework. And maybe, just maybe, it did.

Alive Theatre is an itinerant company making its bones staging off-center theatre in unique spaces. Last time it was a cabaret on Duke’s Riverboat Restaurant in Rainbow Harbor. Now they’re exploiting that great space locals know as “the Dome Room” (i.e., the one-time hotel ballroom of the Lafayette) not so much for its acoustic properties but for the opportunity it provides to create a “stage” that is an unusual combination of height, depth, breadth, and intimacy, spaciously accommodating a multifaceted set containing the Joyce home, a Paris café, the later Beckett’s den, a hospital, a courtroom, and an asylum. Director Craig Fleming has blocked the production so that his actors are often in motion—sometimes quite vigorously—allowing for a theatergoing experience that is a true immersion in the story. Another triumph is the lighting, a combination of backstage-controlled overheads and functional parts of the set manipulated by the actors. The result keeps the play interesting to look at, the hues and shadows always casting just the right mood.

All of this, though, might be reduced to gimmickry or style over substance if it weren’t for the performances, all of which are outstanding. In the title role, Jill Taylor employs her dancer’s body to display a freneticism that mirror’s Lucia’s inner turmoil, at once comely and funny and heartbreakingly disturbed. She keeps her “madness” grounded and somewhat familiar—the kind of thing most of us can relate to, at least a little bit—instead of playing a “crazy” type. But in some sense the trickiest roles are Joyce and Beckett (Rory Cowan and Chris Batstone, respectively), since almost anyone in attendance will have at least some conception (whether accurate or not) of who these celebrated figures “really” were—and because Nigro has intentionally written them a bit too talky to be true-to-life. But Cowan and Batstone own their roles, and so in the end you accept these characters as flesh-and-blood men and not merely placeholders for history. Danielle Dauphinee (wife/mother Nora Joyce) and Ryan McClary (a double-role as Thomas McGreevey and Carl Jung) do exactly what the script calls for them to do, having their moments while letting the larger characters do the heavy lifting. And Aaron Von Geem is a scene-stealer both as a Paris pimp and a deluded “Napoleon,” getting effective double-duty out of an exaggeratedly poncy French accent.

It all comes together because these people know their play. In real life Joyce is the most ridiculous brilliant writer in history, and Nigro isn’t the first to have fun at his expense (Tom Stoppard zings him in Travesties); yet, in a hilarious scene where Cowan’s Joyce sententiously dictates some silly tripe of his “Work in Progress” (eventually, Finnegans Wake), he sounds both sincere and like he knows whereof he speaks. Nigro grasps his subjects (well, save Jung, who sounds created by someone who’s both never read Jung and seen analysis only on sitcom TV), and Fleming sees what Nigro intends, imparting this understanding to his actors so that they know who they are. We’ve all been to bad Shakespeare, where it’s clear everyone onstage is just mouthing the words and wearing silly costumes; nothing like that is afoot here. Go to Lucia Mad, yes I say yes you should Yes.


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