Himself and Nora – James Joyce and Nora Barnacle
Himself and Nora has enough admirable things going for it that one leaves disappointed author Jonathan Brielle didn’t receive more constructive criticism. The piece is often entertaining and (sketchily) illuminating for those unfamiliar with the iconic author’s trajectory. A good time can be had.
James Joyce (1882-1941) is best known for strong descriptions of intrinsic Irish character, stream of consciousness writing and breaking down obscenity barriers with language which is raw and direct (as well as often poetic). A lapsed Catholic, he spent much of his adulthood in self-imposed exile with chosen mate Nora Barnacle whom he wed after 27 years.
Matt Bogart and Whitney Bashor
When Joyce (Matt Bogart) first approaches Nora (Whitney Bashor) –in 1904, Brielle exhibits a real feel for the Irishman’s syntax and provocative language. “My mind is filled with nothing but the whatness of Nora…” When later, he accuses her of infidelity, vulgar images erupt.
Nora, in truth a chambermaid, is shown to be equal to cocky, alcoholic, educated Jimmy. “Many a lad wants me. Can you want me the way I want to be wanted?” She meets him crudity for crudity, proving the one woman he “can’t push around.” With “Kiss” and “Compatriots in Lust” heat ignites recognition. These songs and “I Say Yes!,” a tease during which, attempting to cook, Nora playfully wields a carrot = his member, are infectiously well directed.
The playwright portrays Nora with stubbornness and pragmatism, but also native intelligence, exemplifying a natural turn of words thought by many to have been mined by Joyce for his stories. He also manages to depict the author’s snobbery as integral to out-sized egotism.
Dared to accept a life of ostensible creative freedom dictated by Joyce’s need to write instead of his becoming the doctor or barrister his Da (yeoman-like Michael McCormick) desires, Nora, against everything she’s been taught in the Catholic Church, accepts love without matrimony. We see only a moment of shock before other priorities take hold. The couple leaves Ireland and the hounding admonishment of religion. Ireland, however, as encompassed in his work, never leaves Joyce.
Whitney Bashor and Matt Bogart
Nor, unfortunately does one of its priests (Zachary Prince) who is irritatingly omnipresent throughout. There’s not a moment this device works. Brielle suggests that Joyce’s entire life was a reaction to Catholicism, whereas it’s likely he simply disdained its prejudice and pressures as much as anyone instilled with that ideology can manage. It’s even stated that Leopold Bloom (of Ulysses) was conceived as Jewish to get back at public adversaries. (The less said about Prince’s accent or acting the better.)
Struggling to get by in Trieste, the hero teaches English with a tongue-twister. “River Lifey,” filled with Irish locales. What ?! Obscenity laws prevent the publication of most anything Joyce has written. (There was, additionally, a play and poetry.) Subsidized by his brother Stanislaus, the family, (now with two children), is nonetheless poor, not the least because Joyce drinks up donated funds. (Bogart does fall-down-drunk just fine but is unconvincing embodying the state on his feet.) One of the author’s eyes is infected. (Endless operations follow.) ‘Go buy me bigger paper-and red ink,” he demands.
Lianne Marie Dobbs, Matt Bogart, Michael McCormick, Zachary Prince
A visit home (by Joyce alone) contains a pedestrian drinking song about the Irish in tandem with correspondence between Joyce and Nora, he egging her on to express sexuality, she taking some time to be provoked. “I hear you pantin’, you old mongrel in heat…” she finally writes. (Another good directorial turn.) Joyce’s father is neither here nor there in the play. An inconsequential song later appears to have been written so the production gets its money’s worth out of the actor.
Nor do I understand bringing the kids into it. (Georgio was a sometime singer, Lucia, a dancer who became schizophrenic and was institutionalized.) Reference would’ve been sufficient. Again, with one foot in and one out, “The Children of Mr. Joyce” is weak. Lianne Marie Dobbs who plays all the other women’s roles, including Lucia, is, however, appealing here as well as playing bookstore owner/publisher Sylvia Beach.
Lianne Marie Dobbs, Michael McCormick
Ezra Pound (McCormick) and patroness Miss Shaw Weaver foot the bill to get the Joyces to Paris in hopes the French will be less conservative about publishing. There are two vaudeville songs in Act II, one of which is sheer Marx Brothers. They might fit better if they sounded the least bit Irish. Or French. Direction of the latter, “For I Am the Grand Himself,” makes the protagonist effeminate.
With a little subterfuge and the enthusiasm of Beach, Ulysses is shepherded to the public. We might end the story there or with the couple’s marriage, but Brielle chooses to show how success adversely affects the drunkard, to further bring in religion, and to wind up with Joyce’s unexpected death after an operation for a perforated ulcer. We open and close on the death with an unnecessary sequence of goodbye/I love you songs – one would do, and a wake. The play could successfully be cut by 15 minutes.
Lianne Marie Dobbs, Michael McCormick, Zachary Prince, Whitney Bashor, Matt Bogart
Jonathan Brielle is on shaky ground with some of these ballads, but good with rousing songs. Orchestrations/arrangements begin with Irish flavor which alas dissipates as the show progresses. Literate lyrics as noted can be a pleasure. The book is uneven, but when good makes one long for more like it.
Whitney Bashor (Nora) is credibly earthy, determined, bawdy, and seductive. In split second musical-time, you can practically see Nora weighing options. Her eyes bore and flash. Physical acting is wholehearted. Vocals are engaging. The actress has the only consistently good Irish accent onstage.
Whitney Bashor and Matt Bogart
As James Joyce, Matt Bogart is less dependably in character. First clinches generate steam, later ones seem like going through the motions. Nora seems to salivate, he does not. I buy Joyce’s elitism but not the horrible realization that occurs when Nora walks out. The actor has a fine, resonant voice, which could have better contributed to atmosphere with a sure Irish accent. Perhaps focus was just off tonight.
Director Michael Bush creates adroit visuals with his lovers. Company numbers are lively and well imagined. He even manages to move the intrusive priest in and out of every scene with fluency. Pacing is skilled.
Kelli Barclay’s Choreography is delightful, from ebullient waltzes to Lucia’s Martha- Grahamish turn. Paul Tate dePoo III (Scenic Design) creates solidity and period.
Amy Clark’s Costumes are good except for the decision to dress Pound and Shaw as if they were performing in a music hall for the vaudeville number – wink, wink, diminishing its already nebulous point.
Photos by Matthew Murphy
Opening: Whitney Bashor & Matt Bogart
Himself and Nora
Book, Music & Lyrics by Jonathan Brielle
Directed by Michael Bush
Minetta Lane Theatre
18 Minetta Lane