2 Local Productions Grapple with Questions of Fate & Time

New productions at Next Act and Renaissance Theaterworks play fast and loose with the past, present and future.

Time is not a series of neat single notes called “the present” – one played after another. No . . . Time is a chord: many notes, past-present-future, all real … all alive … and all played at once.

–Robert in Bloomsday

Theaters have packed up their clanking chains and spirit costumes some time ago, but time traveling visits to the past, present and future are still a Dickens of a good way to tell a story. Characters look to the past with bemused regret, or to the future with shocking disbelief. They try to act on mysterious bouts of clairvoyance, or reminisce in search of lost time and neglected insights. What do we control, and what is left to the vagaries of fate?

Two local productions opening this weekend pose these and other questions in delicious and highly entertaining ways.

Despite the central place of James Joyce’s colossus of a novel, Ulysses, the subject of Steven Dietz’s Bloomsday is intimate: one man and one woman—a relationship somewhere between the real and the hypothetical. In Next Act Theatre’s generous production, we first meet Dublin-native Caithleen (Jordan Watson) as she gathers visitors for a walking tour of “James Joyce’s Dublin.” The introduction is made by a visiting American professor, Robert (Norman Moses), who makes it clear in his comments to the audience that he has little admiration for Ulysses (“the most under-read and over-praised piece of doggerel ever hemorrhaged onto the world”), but is quite taken with Caithleen. In fact, he fell hard for her 35 years ago, when he met her on this tour. Not someone like her, mind you, but her. Robert and Caithleen are sharing the same stage, and the same imaginary corner of Dublin, but they speak to each other across a 35-year chasm of time. Dietz splits his characters—we see them in the now and in the past. And so Bloomsday explores the “what-ifs” of two entwined lives.

Jordan Watson and Kyle Curry in “Bloomsday.”
Photo by Ross Zentner

Soon, of course, we meet Robert’s doppelganger, the 20-year-old Robbie (Kyle Curry), who has a conversation with Cait (Carrie Hitchcock), the 55-year-old woman Caithleen has become. With an elegant, but circuitous structure, Dietz reveals what happened on that Bloomsday tour, and what has happened since.

He does so with his trademark wit and warmth. After Robbie craftily winnows away the tour crowd, he tells Caithleen about life in his hometown of Renton, Washington—of two-handed sandwiches and fly-fishing and cold beer and drives to the ocean. She is astonished that he owns a car, and relishes the prospect of a drive to the ocean.

Director Joe Hanreddy show’s why he has directed and helped develop several of Dietz’s plays. He has a sure hand with Dietz’s open-hearted dialogue, and Watson and Curry embody it beautifully. In a wistful companion scene, Hitchcock and Moses look back on the years since that first meeting, revealing the sobering reality that lies beneath Robert’s 35-year-old fantasy.

And so it goes. It’s dreamy, meditative. But the quartet of fine actors ground the story in the earthly realities of lives that can only follow one path, no matter how intense the longing to look back and wonder “what if.”

Neil Brookshire and David Flores in “The Violet Hour.”
Photo by Ross Zentner.

If Bloomsday is a plaintive stroll along the banks of the Liffey, Richard Greenberg’s The Violet Hour—which opened this weekend at Renaissance Theaterworks–is more like a ride on the Coney Island Cyclone. When we meet John Pace Seavering (Neil Brookshire), he’s just out of Princeton, starting his career as a New York City publisher. He’s got all the requirements: an upper-floor office overlooking the 1919 Manhattan skyline, an able assistant, Gidger (David Flores), given to blazing riffs of literature-inflected bellyaching, and piles and piles of novels waiting to become his first best-seller. As a beginner—surviving mostly on daddy’s funds—he enough cash to back one project, and his whittled his choice down to a potent pair: The Violet Hour, a truckstop of a novel by his college chum Denis McCleary (Nicholas Harazin), or a memoir by Jessie Brewster (Marti Gobel), a famous African-American nightclub performer, whom he happens to be sleeping with.

It’s a delicious set-up, and Greenberg lets things fly with rat-a-tat wit that hearkens back to the dialogue of The Front Page, or perhaps to a less arcane Tom Stoppard. The actors have terrific fun with it—from Flores’s gruff umbrage to Harazin’s matter-of-fact narcissism (“How could there be another book? Mine is the only book necessary.”). But all this fun is merely a set-up to the real event of the play, the delivery of an unseen machine that showers the office with pages of manuscript—all of it from books published in the future.

Marti Gobel and Cara Johnston in “The Violet Hour.”

What follows is an ingenious walk on the metaphysical wild side, and director Susan Fete does a terrific job of balancing the playful with the profound. One moment, we’re hearing Seavering read from a 1992 treatise that speculates about his sexuality—informed by the usual academic roster of “specialties”: “queer theory, structuralist theory, post-structuralist theory, modernist theory, postmodern theory….” And the next, we’re privy to a heart-rending letter from the future about Rosamund Plinth (Cara Johnston), the heiress who is to become McCleary’s wife.

And there is much, much more. While Dietz’s Bloomsday zooms in to find big truths in an intimate relationship, The Violet Hour offers a vivid, shifting panorama of life in the fast lanes of the 21st century. Fete and her actors find just the right blend of the outrageous and the ontological to craft a giddy look into the past and future.

Go See It

Bloomsday (April 6-30), Next Act Theatre, 255 S. Water St.

The Violet Hour (April 7-30), Renaissance Theaterworks, 158 N. Broadway




Paul Kosidowski is a freelance writer and critic who contributes regularly to Milwaukee Magazine, WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio and national arts magazines. He writes weekly reviews and previews for the Culture Club column. He was literary director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater from 1999-2006. In 2007, he was a fellow with the NEA Theater and Musical Theater Criticism Institute at the University of Southern California. His writing has also appeared in American Theatre magazine, Backstage, The Boston Globe, Theatre Topics, and Isthmus (Madison, Wis.). He has taught theater history, arts criticism and magazine writing at Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.