Review: ‘James Joyce’s The Dead’ spreads holiday warmth at the Robinson Theatre
James Joyce’s The Dead, the first of five University Theatre shows this season, is not simply a musical, according to director Michael Malek Najjar. Instead, it lives in a world between a play with music where the plot is portrayed mainly through dialogue, and a musical like Cats where the music dictates the plot.
The Dead is based on the short story from James Joyce’s “The Dubliners.” It features a cast of 15 University of Oregon students performing heartfelt, intimate Irish folk songs to tell the story of a family Christmas in the mid-1900s where death, love and the ties between generations are tested. The script is by Richard Nelson and music is by Sean Davey.
Watching this play is like sitting in on another family’s celebration; like being an insider to how someone else connects with their mother or aunt.
The Dead follows married couple Gabriel Conroy and Gretta Conroy, played by Alex Mentzel and Kelsey Tidball, as they attend their Aunt Julia’s Christmas party. When Gretta remembers a poignant moment from her youth, the couple has to reckon with its past on a deeper level. Unfortunately, due to the conversational nature of the show, the most developed moments between the couple were in the background rather than the center stage ballads between the two.
The show floats from one scene to the next powered by Irish ballads, pub songs and jigs, but there is a dark thread throughout that it can’t quite shake. Maybe it was the imminent snow talked about in the plot or Aunt Julia’s cough that made it clear — not all is light in the world of The Dead.
Scenic artist Katie Dumolt and costume designer Jeanette deJong’s rendering of this period piece provide the audience just enough space between themselves and the characters’ experiences. With its dark green walls, brown furniture and delicate decorations, the set provided just enough historical context for the characters’ elaborate mid-1900‘s costumes of maroon, deep purple and brown.
The Dead is about a family of a certain social class whose mannerisms and habits may seem distant, but their fondness for one another shines like any family’s interactions today. What made their interactions so relatable was the reason for the gathering: celebrating Christmas.
The best scenes relied on the full cast’s energy to tell a story. With warm harmonies and Irish dancing, the festivity of the holiday season rang throughout the room. Although the choreography was messy at times, it was authentic to the show because no one at a dinner party actually dances that well, especially after that much wine.
In one particularly raucous song, “Naughty Girls,” the cast streamed into the audience and for a moment broke the fourth wall by dancing with audience members. The Dead is first and foremost an intimate and intense rendering of a family’s Christmas party, but moments like “Naughty Girls” lifted the mood. After all, it’s hard to be with any individual family member for too long.
By the time the second act arrives, the Christmas party is slowing down. The cast sits around a piano and after a few songs, the characters leave one by one. Only in the last two songs does the drama of the story fully reveal itself. In the penultimate song beautifully titled “Michael Fury,” that dark thread finally unravels and Gretta and Gabriel must figure out how to move on. But in some ways, that’s the point of The Dead: There’s a depth beneath the surface that reveals itself at the most peculiar times.
The show has two performances left on Nov. 18 and 19 at 8 p.m. at the Robinson Theatre. Tickets are free for students with a UO I.D.
Editor’s note: Kelsey Tidball is an Emerald employee.
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