Steve Paul

June 12, 2014

A Bloomsday play, depicting James Joyce’s Dublin, gets its 20th hearing in KC

Another Bloomsday is on tap, which is cause for celebratory gatherings in many corners of the globe, including Kansas City, where a dedicated group of people fond of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” has been making merry with the author’s delirious language for the last two decades.

On June 16, 1904, an introspective, agreeable and sometimes gluttonous bloke named Leopold Bloom made the rounds of his workday in Dublin. From morning to late night, Bloom reflected the life of his city in all its gritty and lusty minutiae. And in his metaphoric odyssey he exposed the fragility of the human heart in all its conditions.

Bloom did all this, of course, as the central character of James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” a challenging pinnacle of modern literature scandalously published in Paris in 1922.

Well, another Bloomsday is coming around, which is cause for celebratory gatherings in many corners of the globe, including Kansas City, where a dedicated group of partisans has been making merry with Joyce’s delirious language for the last two decades.

One of the instigators of the local effort is Tom Shawver, a recovered lawyer, rugby player and newly published author, who, with his wife, Nancy, was proprietor of a used bookstore called Bloomsday, where 24-hour readings of “Ulysses” once took place. But Shawver would defer credit to a performer with a glorious soprano voice named Sylvia Stoner-Hawkins, who helped take the Bloomsday phenomenon to another level. On Monday, for the 20th consecutive Bloomsday, Stoner-Hawkins will direct another cast of amateur and professional actors in a 90-minute play extracted from the pages of “Ulysses.”

Stoner-Hawkins first encountered the “Bloomsday” play in her senior year at Skidmore College; the adaptation had been done by her professor and stage director, Lary Opitz.

She provided the rest of the story in an email:

“After I graduated from Skidmore in 1994, I returned to Kansas City and saw the awning of Tom’s store with the writing ‘Bloomsday Books.’ I was curious if this had anything to do with the theatrical insanity that I performed and indeed, yes, it was the same epic work by Joyce. I offered the script to Tom, who graciously agreed to this lunacy and we began to read excerpts from Opitz’s adaptation (especially the Nighttown bits) in the late night hours of the annual Bloomsday reading.

“The reading grew and developed a cult following of actors and audience members.”

Stoner-Hawkins and others performed the play at Shawver’s shop and in other settings, including a roving outdoor performance on the Country Club Plaza during a literary festival and at an Irish pub downtown. In the last few years, the play has been done at the Kansas City Irish Center in Union Station with varying levels of professional participation. (I’ll confess to having had one of the worst Irish accents in my tiny contributions every now and then. But it was all in good fun.)

Much of the Bloomsday play occurs in the bawdy “Nighttown” sequence, during which drunkenness and brothel-dwelling leap to the foreground.

Over the years, Stoner-Hawkins has frequently taken on the stirring role of Molly Bloom, Leopold’s unfaithful wife, whose sultry, dreamy soliloquy closes the epic novel and the Bloomsday play. In other years, Cynthia Hyer has stepped up and delivered an equally convincing Molly.

It’s all in service of the magical and magnetic power of Joyce’s writing — and his deeply observant creation of fictional lives.

“This is going to be my 20th reading,” Stoner-Hawkins told me, “and I always hear something new, appreciate a new depth of the poetry and wit of Joyce.”

Bloomsday festivities, including a reading of favorite passages, a film and Irish music by Eddie Delahunt, begin at 2 p.m. at the Kansas City Irish Center; an introduction to the staged reading of “Bloomsday: Dublin, 16 June” begins at 6:45 p.m.

Steve Paul, editorial page columnist: 816-234-4762, paul@kcstar.com; on Twitter: @sbpaul.

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