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PREVIEW: Burning Coal Theatre Company Preview: James Joyce's "The Dead" Is a Musical Version of One of the World's Greatest Short Stories

by Robert W. McDowell

Burning Coal Theatre Company will stage the North Carolina premiere of the Irish musical James Joyce's "The Dead" Richard Nelson and Shaun Davey's sprightly adaptation of, perhaps, the most famous short story by the controversial expatriate Irish novelist and 20th century literary giant Oct. 7-24 in The Kennedy Theatre at the BTI Center for the Performing Arts in Raleigh, NC. Most famous for the R-rated interior monologues of his revolutionary stream-of-consciousness novels Ulysses (1922) and Finnegans Wake (1939), James Augustine Aloysius Joyce (1882-1941) included "The Dead" in Dubliners (1914), a more conventional but still distinctly Joycean collection of short stories with an Irish background.

New York-based director Rebecca Holderness, the creative genius behind many of Burning Coal's triumphs to date, such as Love's Labours Lost, Einstein's Dreams, and Travesties, will stage this unforgettable story about the uproar that ensues when a stranger crashes the annual Christmas party hosted by three Dublin spinsters for their family and friends.

The show's all-star cast includes Monique Argent of New York City; Debra Gillingham of Wilmington, NC; Quinn Hawkesworth of Abingdon, VA; Stephen LeTrent of Thomasville, NC; Jim Moscater of Greensboro, NC; Sarah Ray of Goldsboro, NC; and Triangle actors Ian Finley, Lynne Marie Guglielmi, David Henderson, Kathryn Jenkins-Smith, Kevin Lawrence, Sheri Masters, Jan Daub Morgan, Greg Paul, Kendall Rileigh, Deb Royals, and Gina Winter. Argent, Lawrence, and Morgan will double as musicians.

"When [Burning Coal artistic director] Jerry Davis at Burning Coal called and told me he wanted me to direct a musical," says Rebecca Holderness, "I said, 'Ok, which?' He said, James Joyce's 'The Dead'.... I immediately said, 'Sure.' We have a really good relationship in that way. He suggests things for me that he thinks will fit my aesthetic vision and also, I think, push me a bit, and I trust that."

She adds, "This is my first connection to James Joyce's 'The Dead' as a theater piece. Of course, I am familiar with the Joyce short story and the film that John Huston made in 1986, I believe. His last film, ironically. It's beautiful, but a bit somber and dark. We are really kicking up our heels with this one, which is, I honestly think, more in the spirit of Joyce, no?"

Besides director Rebecca Holderness, the show's production team includes choreographer Meighan Carpenter of the Raleigh School of Irish Dance; musical director Harrison Fisher of Raleigh; South Africa-born set designer Morag Charlton of Raleigh; lighting designer Matthew Adelson of Brooklyn, NY; costume designer Carson Mather of Raleigh; vocal coach Roger Smart of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro; technical director Jennifer Becker of Raleigh; and assistant director Terry Milner of Chapel Hill.

"I perceive the piece as joyful and soulful, sensual and committed to family and history," says Rebecca Holderness. "All these things are important in my own life. I am an American of Irish descent and eat many meals at my family table in Nashville on chairs brought from Ireland in the early 19th century. So, I relate in that way. I find the central theme of facing change poignant and immediate in a post 9/11 world. And who wouldn't like sitting in a room full of dancing and singing. That's what I like best."

Holderness says the show's plot is simple. "[James Joyce's 'The Dead'] is about three spinster ladies (played by Quinn Hawkesworth, Jan Daub Morgan, and Gina Winter) in Dublin in 1904. Every year, around Christmas, they throw a big party in their Dublin flat. Friends, family, neighbors it's a big social event.

"The sort of 'center' of the extended family is Gabriel and Gretta Conroy (David Henderson and Debra Gillingham)," claims Holderness. "At the Christmas party, songs are sung, dances danced, toasts are made, stories are told, gossip and insinuation is thrown around the room. And then a young music student (Stephen LeTrent) appears. His name is Michael. He shakes up Gretta in a way that is only noticed by her husband."

Holderness adds, "Later that night, Gabriel confronts her. The story she tells him is about another 'Michael' from a quarter century before. And that's pretty much it. The short story is so compact, so specific and so precise. It makes a great musical, I think. All too often today's musicals want to put too much material and too little substance on the stage."

Rebecca Holderness is an imaginative, resourceful director whose productions have earned fulsome praise in New York as well as the Triangle. She says staging James Joyce's "The Dead" will be a creative challenge.

"There's a split in the play," Holderness explains. "It has to do with the way the play is written. I think the split is intentional on the part of the playwrights. The play is at once realistic and not realistic. This reflects the inner and outer experience that we all have. And I think that choice is perfectly in tune with Joyce's work. So, the challenge is to bring the two elements into harmony, as in a song. Something I think we are doing quite well."

Somewhat mysteriously, Holderness says the show's set will be "ice and fire," its lighting will be "icy and amber," and its costumes will be "muted, like in a daguerreotype, mostly shades of black and white, [and] true to the 19th century period."

She adds, "There are 18 wonderful actors, singers, musicians, and dancers in this production; and I love working with every one of them. I'm so pleased I've been introduced to the great work of Quinn Hawkesworth she is so simple and direct and so full of humor in a very subtle way. Also, Jan Morgan is blowing me away with her energy and amazing comic ability. Deb Royals is hot, Debra Gillingham a pro. And working with [actor] David Henderson, [Burning Coal artistic director] Jerome Davis, and [set designer] Morag Charlton is always worth the trip to Raleigh."

Burning Coal Theatre Company presents James Joyce's "The Dead" Thursday-Saturday, Oct. 7-9, 14-16, and 21-23, at 7:45 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 10, 17, and 24, at 2 p.m. in The Kennedy Theatre at the BTI Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $15 ($13 students, seniors 65+, and active military-personnel and $10 for groups of 10 or more), except Oct. 10 pay-what-you-can performance. 919/834-4001 or [inactive 12/04]. Note: The Oct. 9 performance will be audio described for the hearing impaired. Burning Coal Theatre Company: Internet Movie Database (1987 Film): James Joyce Centre: [inactive 4/05].

REVIEW: Burning Coal Theatre Company Review: The Adapters of James Joyce's "The Dead" Foolishly Try to Improve on the Original

by Scott Ross

With Irish author James Joyce's famous short story "The Dead," Richard Nelson and Shaun Davey make the worst mistake available to adapters of great literary work trying to improve on the original.

In their quasi-musical James Joyce's "The Dead" the possessive case makes the title no truer than Francis Ford Coppola calling his vampire movie Bram Stoker's "Dracula" Nelson and Davey, not content to let Joyce's story speak for itself, add incident, alter characterization, give narration to the one figure least apposite to that purpose, and vulgarize the material with a raucous abandon suited more to the music hall so beloved of one of its characters than to the graceful holiday gathering of the story's elderly social matriarchs. There well may be an exquisite little musical to be made from "The Dead," arguably the most honored of all English-language short stories; but as the current Burning Coal Theatre Company production amply demonstrates, this isn't it.

Regarding "The Dead," I'm reminded of Shaw's epithet to Gabriel Pascal when presented with the notion of musicalizing his most famous play: "If Pygmalion is not good enough for your friends with its own verbal music, their talent must be altogether extraordinary." (It was, as it turned out.)

Richard Nelson's talent as a playwright is also extraordinary, but he approaches the story schizophrenically: when he stays true to Joyce, he does so with scrupulous fealty; when he alters, he is profligate in the extreme. Ditto Shaun Davey's songs, which are more like incidental bits drawn from here (Joyce's narrative voice) and there (Irish folk-song) but which do nothing so mundane as reveal, or even reflect, character.

Invoking in these pages the 1987 John Huston film of "The Dead," the play's director, Rebecca Holderness, said, "It's beautiful, but a bit somber and dark. We are really kicking up our heels with this one, which is, I honestly think, more in the spirit of Joyce, no?"

No. In Huston's rich, elegiac final statement as a filmmaker, the music was altogether Joycean: its language, sense of time, place and observation, and characterizations reflected and amplified the feel of the original author's intention. The story itself is dark. The surface trappings of holiday cheer cannot be separated from the descending arc of its central character Gabriel Conroy's experience, in which the casual airing of a ballad leads to a revelation that causes a man's entire edifice of a life to come crashing down around his ears in a single, shattering night. Huston (and his son Tony, who wrote the screenplay) understood that. Nelson, Holderness, et al., apparently do not.

The story presents us with a way of life of hospitality, in Gabriel's term that is vanishing. The musical says the same thing, but what it shows is indistinguishable from the way we live now. The show's creators mistake current social notions of behavior with that of the past: the guests casually indulge in crude blasphemies in the respectable home of two elderly Dublin ladies and stamp about with lower-class bravado more appropriate to a public house than a genteel petit bourgeois Christmas function.

And if you've read "The Dead," try to imagine Aunt Julia and Aunt Kate dancing on the dining table, or thrusting out their bottoms to the double-entendre lyrics of a saucy music hall turn that climaxes with their niece Mary Jane kissing the diffident tenor Bartell D'arcy with passionate abandon. It's beyond outrage; it's obscene.

Nelson even botches the story's pivotal moment, placing it not at the party's end, but near its beginning. There are some exceptionally fine performers assembled here (Quinn Hawkesworth, Debra Gillingham, Jan Daub Morgan, Kendall Rileigh, Deb Royals) but neither they nor the redoubtable David Henderson can triumph over material like that.

Meighan Carpenter's choreography consists largely of Celtic clod-hopping in the approved Michael Flatley fashion, and the lighting designs of Matthew Adelson are curiously antiseptic in their institutional harshness. Carson Mather's costumes for the women are largely apt (aside from dressing Aunt Kate to look like a sack of Irish potatoes), but he comes a cropper with the men's clothing, which include anachronisms such as 1904 dress shirts bearing breast pockets.

James Joyce's "The Dead" is a musical for people who'd rather be watching Riverdance.

Burning Coal Theatre Company presents James Joyce's "The Dead" Thursday-Saturday, Oct. 14-16 and 21-23, at 7:45 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 17 and 24, at 2 p.m. in The Kennedy Theatre at the BTI Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $15 ($13 students, seniors 65+, and active military-personnel and $10 for groups of 10 or more). 919/834-4001 or [inactive 12/04]. Burning Coal Theatre Company: Internet Movie Database (1987 Film): James Joyce Centre: [inactive 4/05].

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