It was the perfect night to have dinner al fresco. The doors and windows of Sea Cliff’s restaurants were open, inviting a breeze to flow in from the streets. What diners hadn’t anticipated was that their dinner would be accompanied by a show. Outside, a recorder whistled over the hum of conversation, which made people turn to a roving play moving through the streets. It was a band of residents performing a dramatization of “Ulysses,” by James Joyce.
“Ulysses” depicts a single day in the life of its main character, Leopold Bloom: June 16, 1904. The work is well known as a mirror to Homer’s “Odyssey.” Each year, Joyce fans worldwide celebrate “Ulysses” on June 16, or “Bloomsday,” by holding readings and performances or visiting landmarks that are referenced in the book.
In the past, Sea Cliff residents Ann and Dan DiPietro have gone to Manhattan to see “Bloomsday” on Broadway. They also had their book club read “Ulysses.” Eight years ago, Ann had an idea to arrange a live reading of some of its scenes for villagers to enjoy. When the couple met Fred Stroppel, a playwright, during Sea Cliff’s annual Scrooge Stroll — a dramatization of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” — they decided to expand their “Bloomsday” celebrations.
“For a few years, we held [the readings] indoors,” Dan DiPietro said, “but we felt it really cried out to be taken into the streets and literally recreate the feel of Bloom’s journey through Dublin.”
Together, he and Stroppel adapted Joyce’s text to develop an abridged version of “Ulysses” — a compilation of 15 scenes performed by a 12-person cast. Each scene took place at different Sea Cliff landmarks, which acted as proxies for the locations in “Ulysses.” The opening scene, set at the Martello Tower in Joyce’s version, was performed in front of the Sea Cliff water tower. The DiPietros’ house on Main Street paralleled Bloom’s house on Eccles Street in Dublin.
Audiences were encouraged to follow the players as they moved from place to place, occasionally stopping traffic. June 12 was the first time the play was “taken on the road,” Stroppel said. “This year we decided to turn it into a jaunt almost for our own sake, to see how it would work out.”
Stroppel, of Glen Cove, was the “director by default” of the James Joyce Jaunt. He has spent the past 30 years writing scripts for off-Broadway plays and independent films. He studied Joyce in college and has read “Ulysses” multiple times. His goal for the production, he said, was to make the work more accessible to audiences.
“Despite all the profanities and gymnastics of language in Joyce, it’s a simple story about people that we often recognize,” Stroppel said. “Every town has a Leopold Bloom, and . . . to enter it that way, with a sense of universality rather than strangeness, it becomes so much more accessible.”
Stroppel said the cast met twice before the jaunt to rehearse the play and settle logistics. While the lines were not committed to memory, the actors were committed to having fun. “We’ve worked on this for years now,” Stroppel said, “and we have a lot of laughs when we go out and wing it.”
As the costumed characters strolled through the village, onlookers from restaurants and nearby homes joined the trailing audience to interact with the moving spectacle. DiPietro said the energy of the evening was palpable. “When Heidi [Hunt] was singing ‘Love’s Old Sweet Song’," — the first line of which is "just a song at twilight" — "there we were,” he said, describing the soft, glowing sky that covered the play’s final scene.
As the jaunt ended, Ann DiPietro, portraying Molly Bloom, recited a portion of Joyce’s 45-page soliloquy from the final chapter of “Ulysses.” As she read the excerpt — a long, uninterrupted stream-of-consciousness speech — one couldn’t help but think of Sea Cliff: “And the sea . . . crimson sometimes like fire, and the glorious sunsets and the fig trees in the Alameda gardens, yes, and all the queer little streets and the pink and blue and yellow houses, and the rose gardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses.”