This review was written by freelance arts critic Andrew J. Friedenthal
Austin playwright Stephen Dietz’s new play “Bloomsday,” receiving its Texas premiere production at Austin Playhouse through Feb. 5, is a lyrical, intriguing drama that belongs to the somewhat unique genre of “time-travel romance.” Some works have used this genre to great success (Audrey Niffenegger’s novel “The Time Traveler’s Wife”) and others to a lesser degree (Richard Curtis’ film “About Time”); “Bloomsday” fortunately falls into the former category.
Despite the time-traveling motif, “Bloomsday” is far from a work of science fiction. Indeed, it is left open to interpretation whether we are witnessing time travel, memory, fantasy or an intermingling of all three; this is, in many ways, the point of the play. Nevertheless, with its interactions between two temporal sets of a single pair of lovers, in both their younger and older incarnations, “Bloomsday” plays with the tropes and traditions of time-travel romance, but it does so in order to tease out the poetry of such encounters rather than the mechanical consequences of plot.
Robbi and Caithleen (or, as they’re known in their older versions, Robert and Cait) are the young couple at the heart of the play, meeting in Dublin, Ireland, on a Bloomsday walking tour that covers the parts of the city traveled by the character Leopold Bloom in James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” The novel itself takes on a large role in the play, with its themes, characters and language recurring throughout and its famous modernist structure mirroring the achronological flow of events in “Bloomsday.”
Because of this, the exact plot of the play remains ultimately vague, but it revolves around Robert and Cait revisiting their thirty-years-younger selves’ brief moment of romance. Though the specifics of the events (and the revisitation) are somewhat muddled, the emotional resonance is never lost.
Much of that resonance comes not just from a script with beautiful language but also from four performers who have a deft hand at expressing those words. Aaron Johnson and Claire Grasso, as the young Robbie and Caithleen, are pure charm, embodying youthful romance tinged with the fears and anxieties of an unknown, unsteady future. Huck Huckaby and Cyndi Williams are far more reserved and philosophical in their portrayal of the couple’s later days and express the text’s deep melancholy just as the younger actors do its hopefulness.
Director Don Toner and his design crew have wisely gone with a very bare, stripped-down production, with just a few set pieces, props and projections to create Dietz’s (and Joyce’s) Dublin. The minimalist approach allows for the actors to fill the stage with their own emotive strength, a move that best serves the text.
“Bloomsday” is a bittersweet love story awash in a sentiment that is equal parts American and Irish, and Austin Playhouse’s production, with four talented actors at its heart, does that story quiet, poetic justice.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday through Feb. 5.
Where: Austin Playhouse, 6001 Airport Blvd.