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|A CurtainUp Review
James Joyce Is Dead and So Is Paris: The Lucia Joyce Cabaret
By Kathryn Osenlund
Set in a mental institution, this play is about Lucia Joyce, James Joyce's artistic, schizophrenic daughter. The combination of James Sugg's compelling music, the odd, remarkable lyrics, Deborah Stein's inventive writing, and the idiosyncratic ensemble acting under the direction of Dan Rothenberg adds up to an amazing evening of theater.
Ushered into Crazyland, we are given a program, handmade by "Lucia Joyce," for a performance written and directed by Lucia Joyce, with music by Lucia Joyce, set and costumes by Lucia Joyce, starring Lucia Joyce as herself. This is the start of Pig Iron Theatre Company's play, which was developed in residence at Princeton as part of Toni Morrison's Atelier Program. It is being presented at Christ Church Annex in Old City.
It's an out of kilter world, whose distinctly odd features go right down to the seating. Audience chairs are clothed in dresses. A pitiful little bar provides drinks in small, medicinal paper cups, served by an equally pitiful inmate. Deranged patients wander the room, some dispensing juice from weird IV apparatus. Medicine bottles on small tables contain candy pills, and visitors are invited to help themselves to some medication. This is not going to be traditional theatre. In fact, it appears to be an antidote to modern drama.
Mattresses line a wall next to the cabaret stage. An Eiffel tower trimmed in lights and bent like a drawing gone awry, stands off to one side, invoking the Paris of Lucia Joyce's memory. Lucia was committed to St. Andrew's Hospital, Northampton by her mother and her father, James Joyce. She pines for Paris and her lover, Samuel Beckett, as she concocts scenarios involving her parents.
Lucia Joyce is alive and more or less well, and living in Paris --that is-- the Paris in her mind, Paris of the 20s. Confined to the asylum, she runs a loony tunes, rock 'n' roll inmate cabaret. A doctor, or a patient who imagines he's a doctor, opens the show, bringing on Lucia and her troupe. Cassandra Friend shines in the title role. Her deadpan, catatonic delivery of commentary and jokes ("That's a joke.") is delivered via a 1940's vintage mike. But the play is atemporal, and the 20s mix with Indie Rock.
Lucia's catatonia morphs into mania, and eventually she performs a frenetic dance in a straitjacket. In a program note musical influences are named: Magnetic Fields, Neutral Milk Hotel, Merge Records, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Wesley Willis, Daniel Johnston, Pogues, Flaming Lips.
Sugg's music is infectious (no hospital pun intended). If mental hospitals rocked like this, people would be lined up around the block, waiting to get committed. The music is loud, raucous, and superb. The driving force of a real rock 'n' roll band is provided by first-rate local musicians, Amy Pickard of She-Haw, Brad Trojan from Traffic Jam, and drummer Ben Edwards of the Ben Edwards Trio. The musicians are also good actors.
The company sustains an atmosphere of uncertainty as inmates wander about in their mad way and take their turns in the cabaret. The portrayal of patients is obviously researched. It's nothing like the easy, stereotyped versions of "crazy" often encountered. A cast member confirmed that the players studied videos of old film footage shot in institutions, back when such filming was permitted, enabling them to study physical manifestations and learn specific behaviors.
Gabriel Quinn Bauriedel is Spencer Topol and a James Joyce. He's a good keyboardist, fine actor, and splendid nut case. Emmanuelle Delpech-Ramey, as Madeline, is inspired at acting crazy. Dito van Reigersberg (Harvey) sings the words of a letter, poignantly, stopping and starting. James Sugg, the hip composer, sings a sweet old Irish ballad. And after endless aimless wandering throughout the performance space, Jane Moore positively bops. The denouement holds surprises --which might have worked even better if subtle groundwork had been laid. There's a Pirandello moment, and then the play becomes truncated. There are quick twists and revelations as the frame widens. It is exciting theatre. Pig Iron aims to develop works that are "unexpected, risky, and demanding," and this play fills the bill.
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