In their first in-person production since early 2020, the Columbia University Players can finally welcome an audience back for The Dead, a stage adaptation of James Joyce’s short story. Staff Writer Ava Slocum went to the Lerner Black Box Theater for the Friday performance of the show, directed by Celia Krefter (CC ’22).
The Lerner Black Box is small; just a few rows of seats spanning three of the four walls circle the little theater, and something about the packed audience for Friday night’s performance, coming into the Black Box from a cold night outside, gave the room a feeling of cozy intimacy. CUP’s The Dead was done in theater-in-the-round style, and the cast’s proximity to the audience really made it feel like everyone in the theater was a part of the show.
The play, adapted from James Joyce’s “The Dead” by CUP’s Celia Krefter, Lily Parker (BC ’22), and Ellie Houlihan (GS ’23), tells the story of a party for the Feast of the Epiphany in early 20th-century Dublin. There is not one consistent plot; instead, the play follows conversations and interactions between the different characters, and the cast’s ad-libbing and casual way of speaking made me feel not like a watcher of a play but like another guest simply observing the wintry holiday celebration.
The stage was mostly stark, with the actors only carrying in the set pieces for the scenes that required a table or chairs or a piano. The set design by Zekai Zhang, CC ’24, put the focus on the party guests and their exchanges with each other, and the buoyancy of their interactions made the play still engaging to watch before the backdrop of the theater’s plain black walls.
“The Dead” is the last story in Joyce’s Dubliners, published in 1914. As dramaturg Lily Parker noted in her comments in the program, the subtext of Irish nationalism is undeniably present in Joyce’s words, and the original story is rife with references to the politics of the period (including the tension between Catholics and Protestants that Joyce explores in much of his work). For the most part, CU Players’s production does not dwell on the public affairs of early 20th-century Ireland. Instead, director Celia Krefter chooses to go in the opposite direction, incorporating J.Lo songs and Borat references and turning the waltz scene into a dance party where the characters bop together to hits from the 2000s.
“The Dead” is a challenging story to adapt for a cast of college students, as the characters represent several generations. The central themes revolve around a middle-aged man’s musings on growing older and ultimately succumbing to the universal fate of death. (The ruminating on time’s passing and the holiday party setting made me think of Thornton Wilder’s play The Long Christmas Dinner, with its story of a family saga unraveled over nine decades in the dining room of the same ancestral home.) CUP’s version works, despite the somewhat contradictory youth of its cast members, and there were some truly standout performances that made Friday’s show a joy to watch.
Susannah Yezzi, CC ’24, as Gabriel Conroy, was fantastic—she played the part with a combination of humor and quivering, questioning sincerity that brought out the character conflict at the heart of the play. Her character also got some fabulous bits of physical comedy; at one point in the beginning, she managed to pull off her boots after a struggle reminiscent of a Mr. Bean skit, and her sometimes awkward, jerky body movements throughout hinted endearingly at Gabriel Conroy’s self-conscious unease that only progresses as the story moves on.
It seemed like some of the roles were gender-bent and others were not; the cast was nearly all women, but whereas Gabriel Conroy’s pronouns were changed to she/her and she became one of two “Mrs. Conroy”s, other characters played by women kept the male name and pronouns.
Music was a big part of the show, from the soundtrack that had the characters dancing to “Come On Eileen” to the lovely live piano performances of Morgan Johns, GS ’25 as Mary Jane Morkan, who played “Bridge over Troubled Water” while the rest of the cast sang along. Musical director Jackie Chu (BC ’22)’s choices had the effect of bringing the cast together as one, while furthering Krefter’s aim of taking the play from its context of 1900s Ireland to tell a story independent of place and time. The dancing scenes, choreographed by Krefter, all added a joviality that fit the party-themed show perfectly (and they all garnered a lot of applause from the audience).
Another standout was Jane Walsh, CC ’23, who played a hilariously irreverent Freddy Malkins and got more audience laughs than just about any other character in the show. Walsh’s ad-libbing was good, like that of most of the other actors, and her moments of humor played off well against the Conroys’ more probing monologues toward the end of the play.
Eden Johnson, CC ’25 as a pensive Gretta Conroy, in her explanatory speech at the end, did a good job of setting up Gabriel’s subsequent epiphany that she does not know her wife at all (to be fair, we don’t know her very well either; Gretta Conroy was one character who I wished had gotten more development in this production).
Joyce’s story and CUP’s adaptation both present the final scene as the most poignant part. Yezzi, in her last and (in my opinion) most stirring, and beautifully delivered, monologue, reflects on how everyone she knows and everyone alive right now will die someday as she imagines the January snow falling all over Ireland, over the houses of the living and the graves of the dead.
“One by one we will all pass into that other world—better to do so boldly and in the heat of some passion than to fade miserably with age,” Gabriel Conroy pondered, still reeling from what she had just learned about how little she knew about her wife’s past. Meanwhile, Krefter had the rest of the cast line up around the sides and corners of the theater as if emerging like ghosts from the snow, providing a touching visual representation of the generations of family and friends who will too fade away one day.
But The Dead is not a depressing show, and this is where CUP’s production best succeeds. Even at the very end, the warm lighting onstage and the cast’s instant return to song and dance after the final round of applause made it clear that the focus, in CUP’s interpretation at least, was on the people we love and get to know while they’re still with us.
In her director’s note, Krefter pondered, “There is an undercurrent of melancholy through it all, like watching snow falling outside while you’re warm and dry inside.” When the show was over, the audience clapped long and loud, then put on their coats and slipped back out into the chilly night.
The Dead will have its final showing in the Lerner Austin E. Quigley Black Box Theater on Saturday, December 4, at 8 pm. Tickets for the Saturday show are currently sold out but may be available at the door on standby. (Last night there were some seats open and people who came without tickets got in off of a waitlist, so there is hope!). BC/CUID and proof of COVID-19 vaccination are required for entry.
Update, December 5, 2021 10:42 pm: This review was updated with a correction to the show’s title which was initially misattributed as The Dead, 1904, a different theatrical adaptation of Joyce’s short story.
Epiphany Dance Party via Ava Slocum’s Phone (which, fittingly, died halfway through the performance)