By Timothy Gillis
AIRE Theater is bringing back Bloomsday for Beginners, its celebration of June 16, the day that the action takes place in James Joyce’s much revered but perhaps lesser read master work, “Ulysses.” In one hour, the troupe will take you through the perambulations of Leopold Bloom, the main character and Irish Odysseus who wanders the Dublin streets and pubs and, at for one point, a brothel. It is there that he meets up with Stephen Daedalus, the artist Joyce paints a portrait of in his earlier, more accessible work. Bloom is chaste in the scene, and spends his time trying to sober up Stephen and keep him from the missteps of youth, as if her were his own son, Rudy, who dies as a child. Meanwhile, back at his house, his wife, Molly Bloom, has been the opposite of her “Ulysses” counterpart, Penelope, who kept her suitors at bay, weaving and unweaving.
This marvelous, myriad cast of characters is brought to life through dramatic readings, in full brogue.
The rollicking performance piece was written by AIRE Artistic Director Tony Reilly, using scenes, songs, and lots of humor to explain the story line.
“I had read Ulysses and several other Joyce books, but I wasn’t a fanatic, as I soon learned a lot of people are,” Reilly said this week. “Since that initial production, AIRE and the MIHC have done many Bloomsday celebrations, including readings of the book by local Portland celebrities, pub crawls and readings at local landmarks, such as Monument Square, the Portland Public Library, and local book stores.
The MIHC plans to keep the tribute going with an exhibit of their collection of Joyce’s books, memorabilia, and a showing of the film “The Dead,” John Huston’s final film starring his daughter Anjelica Huston. Many cities in the US such as New York, Buffalo, and San Francisco have their own unique ways of celebrating, and with a blooming literary scene, Portland is throwing in its dented hat.
Last year, the MIHC held a program at their library, buoyed up with help from a Maine Humanities Council grant, featuring a reading of Joyce and other notable Irish authors.
“We’ve added an amazing amount of eclectic gatherings here in the last year,” said Vinny O’Malley, executive director. “And made some movements to encourage non-Irish folks. We want to be active, and have people come here to a real community center.”
Their slogan is “All are welcome,” and they have been working towards expanding their reach. “We’re an Irish center, but we want to make a space for all immigrant groups appearing here in greater Portland,” he said. “Some people can be intimidated by this place. They still think it’s a church. We have had wedding and funerals here; it’s not like some of that is not still going on here. But we’re so much more than that now.”
Last year, the MIHC hosted the 1st annual Welcome the Stranger, a local organization that helps new immigrants with issues surrounding their refugee status and seeking of asylum.
While broadening their scope, the center is still the main repository in town for all things Irish. Situated and steeped in the old neighbor of Tyng and Tate and Danforth Streets, and anchored at its opposite end with the statue of John Ford, the center brags of being the school of the acclaimed Hollywood director who got his education on these streets and at Portland High School when he was still “Bull” Feeney.
The center offers DNA testing and genealogical studies, and since 1994 when the old St. Dominic’s was closed by the Portland diocese and the MIHC was born, Dubliners have been feeling at home there.
“My wife Susan and I came up here to Portland to live in 2003. We had a previous relationship with the MIHC (Maine Irish Heritage Center) and our goal was to establish an Irish theater company, which we did. AIRE (American Irish Repertory Ensemble. In 2004 members of the MIHC wanted to celebrate the 100th anniversary of “Bloomsday” — June 16th, 1904, the day the events in the book James Joyce novel Ulysses are set. Everyone had good ideas but they were having a hard to implementing them. I very foolishly stepped up and said that I would put together a theater piece for the occasion. I sat down and reduced – probably one of the most difficult and important books in the English language – in to a one-hour piece for anyone who has read the book or anyone who never has and doesn’t intend to. It’s silly, fun and fast. And it actually covers the whole book in one hour.
Tony and his wife, Susan, were in a tragic car accident that claimed Susan’s life. Tony’s return to the stage they once shared has been an inspiration to center members, theater fans, and actors everywhere. “We love Tony, and we love that he’s back here,” O’Malley said. His return, though incredibly difficult, has inspired Tony, as well.
“I have to say that Susan was the prime mover and shaker on the Portland Bloomsday activities. Every year, she and a handful of local devotees would work very hard, to make it a fun and memorable event. When I was still in the hospital after the accident that took my wife, I got a call from members of the AIRE board that gingerly said ‘would you maybe consider doing Ulysses for Beginners this year? At the time I immediately said ‘yes,’ even though I don’t even think I was able to walk yet. After the initial yes, I started thinking that I was nuts to do it. But the thought of honoring Susan and her memory was too strong, and it was the best thing I could have done,” Reilly said. “The response that night (June 16, 2015) at the MIHC was overwhelming. ‘Ulysses’ is a funny book that attracts a very strong following. And it’s a very strong part of Irish culture, and that’s what AIRE and MIHC are all about: celebrating and spreading Irish joy.”
Bloomsday for Beginners
Friday, June 16, at 7 p.m.
The Maine Irish Heritage Center,
at the corner of State and Gray Streets in Portland
Festive and period attire encouraged. Cash bar.