The relationship between Vincent O’Neill and James Joyce is fabled. Their connection, set generations apart but within kilometers of each other, has cradled O’Neill, artistic director of the Irish Classical Theatre Company, in much of his creative flow.
If O’Neill is still calling the creative shots 23 years after co-founding the company, then Joyce is his co-founder emeritus, his posthumous artist-in-residence.
This means the restaging of Ulick O’Connor’s “Joyicity,” a one-man, one-act tribute to some landmarks of the writer’s life and work, isn’t just logical; it was inevitable.
The play also marked the debut of the theater company in 1990, at the former Pfeifer Theatre, in the same neighborhood of its subsequent space at the Calumet Arts Café on Chippewa, and its current home at the Andrews Theatre on Main.
It was also O’Neill’s last performance in Ireland before his self-proclaimed “voluntary exile” a year earlier, making this both a homecoming and memorial.
The piece is rich with literary motifs, the thickest Irish brogue, and a foundation of spiritual and patriotic truisms that make the intended ode to Joyce intimately elegiac and universally inspiring.
The artistic soul’s search for clarity amid complexity, naturally, assumedly, is the draw to O’Neill and it’s his offering to us.
O’Connor contrasts passages from Joyce’s canon – novels and poems, but only one published play; ironic given the theatrical license here – with landmarks of his own life. The synchronicity between his characters’ lives and his own is enhanced by the understood connections between our performer and his subject.
There are times when those connections are difficult to grasp, though, the fault of some cloudy transitions in the script and an occasional one-note tone from O’Neill. Some sharper clarity between narrator and character voices would help.
That said, O’Neill lands his characterizations with classical craft. He graces those lyrical (read: sloppy) Irishmen with a mime’s whimsy, surely a nod to muse Marcel Marceau. And his quick transition in stature, from middle-age Joyce to old-man Joyce, is just beautiful to watch.
Somewhere in O’Neill’s body is an acrobat, waiting for his trapeze. When he decides to reach for it, he always lands the swing. It’s when he just puts his hand out for it – the hesitation is visible – that we forget who’s who and where’s where.
The language is another barrier, but that’s simply unavoidable. I imagine non-natives with a keen ear will delight in the linguistics of this text; that fun is the reward of paying attention. If you can grab a third of what’s said, you’re still OK.
There’s a smart metaphor in O’Connor’s framing, and in Ron Schwartz’s subsequent set design, that takes care of any loose thematic ends.
It’s the age-old circle of life, which despite Hallmark greetings and singing feline royalty, still works convincingly as a narrative device. It enters the text here subtly enough, with a setting in the River Liffey, which flows from the mountains to the city of Dublin, and into the Irish Sea. It talks of Joyce’s evolution from youth to man, and O’Neill’s journey from coast to coast.
In that it is also terminal – that with life comes death – it is about soul. The soul of a writer, a patriot, a local; all these things are wrapped up in Joyce’s home.
The conversation in this play and also in its production, more than two decades after its last landmark, is about place. Which is a novel way of talking about a man.
And in the capable, necessary hands of O’Neill, who tells another man’s story with his own mythology in mind, we can appreciate how all was met on this stage, right here, in this joyous city.