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In honor of Bloomsday, the annual celebration of James Joyce, two actresses take on his most iconic female character
Irish-born actresses Aedín Moloney and Eilin O'Dea separately stumbled upon James Joyce's novel Ulysses when they were young, and they both reacted to it similarly: They were aghast. But they were also intrigued by the last chapter, known as the Penelope episode, which focuses on the protagonist's wife, Molly Bloom. Now they're both bringing that character to life in different one-woman shows: Moloney's YES! Reflections of Molly Bloom at Irish Repertory Theatre through July 7, and O'Dea's Molly Bloom by James Joyce presented by Fusion Theatre through June 22. The productions are timed to coincide with Bloomsday, a celebration of the Irish writer that takes place every year on June 16, the date in 1904 that Ulysses chronicles in the life of Molly's husband, Leopold Bloom.
Moloney was just 13 when she happened upon Ulysses at her local Dublin public library. She knew absolutely nothing about it but, as a bookworm, she started reading. "I remember being a little shocked at some of the content," she recalls. "I was also absolutely fascinated, and intrigued that there was no punctuation. It was like reading an abstract painting." Once she was grown and working as an actress, she decided to read it again. "I got a lot more out of it," she admits, though she regarded it as "one of those word puzzles where you pick the word out of a jumble of letters." That's when she realized she wanted to "dig deeper."
O'Dea's introduction to Ulysses came when she was in her twenties and working as an actress in Paris. She got a call from a producer looking for an Irish actress to be part of a local Bloomsday event, and ended up doing the Penelope episode. O'Dea had never seen it before, much less read it aloud. "To be honest, I was completely horrified by it," O'Dea recalls. "I found some of the more descriptive sexual passages quite shocking." A decade later, having become "more mature," she revisited the chapter and felt in awe. "Everybody knows the last couple of lines -- 'yes I said yes I will Yes,'" she quotes with a laugh. "But there is so much more there, so much more to her than that. There's such beautiful language. It makes it easy to inhabit her."
Moloney worked with writer Colum McCann to adapt the Penelope episode for YES!, which is having its world premiere. "It has taken me 15 years to find what was most important to pull out -- what was most important to her," Moloney says. She initially started crafting the piece after McCann invited her to read from the chapter at the inaugural Bloomsday celebration at the bar Ulysses in the Financial District. Her show features brief musical interludes composed by Paddy Moloney, the leader of the Irish musical group The Chieftains, who also happens to be her father.
O'Dea first performed Molly Bloom by James Joyce a decade ago as part of the Bloomsday Festival at the James Joyce Center in Dublin. This run marks the U.S. premiere of the play, which she says "is lifted straight from the pages of Ulysses -- I do not change a single word." However, since the full Penelope episode would take more than three hours to read in its entirety, she's only performing the last third.
On June 16, many others Mollys will get up on New York stages at various Bloomsday celebrations. At the commemoration being held at Bloom's Tavern in Midtown in Midtown, five women, including Irish Rep artistic director Charlotte Moore, will take turns reading the Penelope episode.
Why are so many drawn to speaking, and hearing, Molly Bloom?
"I have never seen a woman character written so clearly, so intimately, so honestly," Moloney replies. "It flows like a piece of music. It's like a poem. It was evident to me from the beginning that this was meant to be heard."
O'Dea agrees. "The audience is looking in on a woman who is in her bedroom by herself, ruminating on so many different facets of her life -- her relations with her husband, with her daughter, the loss of her son, her affair with Hugh Boylan, her relationship with other women. There is a huge amount of rawness, zero inhibition; Joyce's insight into the woman's mind is staggering."
Both actresses say their favorite passage of Molly's soliloquy is the last ten minutes, which climaxes with the yeses. "Traditionally that's seen as a sexual orgasm," Moloney says. "But it's not. It's about reaching pure understanding, and finding the reason to live."
Joyce only wrote one play, Exiles, based on his short story The Dead, but it's rarely done. Ironically, many theatre-makers have put that very tale on stage. There's a musical that ran briefly on Broadway and was nominated for five Tonys in 2000. In 2016, O'Dea launched Fusion Theatre with a staged reading of The Dead; that same year, Irish Rep mounted The Dead, 1904, an immersive dinner party adaptation that's become an annual holiday offering, which Moloney has appeared in.
Stage adaptations of Joyce's writings are likely to increase for one practical reason: In 2012, all of his work entered the public domain, meaning his estate no longer has a say in how it's adapted. When O'Dea first started performing her Molly play, she had a conversation with Joyce's grandson. "He sort of semi-permitted me to put on the works, but he had all of these conditions," she recalls. So it did not surprise her that, "as soon as it came out of copyright, a theatre company did his Dubliners in Dublin."
"I do think much of Joyce's work is adaptable for the theatre," Moloney adds. "There's so much there to work with." In the meantime, she says she is thrilled about all the Mollys blooming in New York this month. "I'm delighted so many women are interested in doing it. Molly Bloom is everywoman, so it is a celebration of being a woman."
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Jonathan Mandell is a drama critic and journalist based in New York. Visit his blog at NewYorkTheater.me or follow him on Twitter at @NewYorkTheater. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Aedín Moloney in YES! Reflections of Molly Bloom at Irish Repertory Theatre. Photo by Carol Rosegg.