Bright Plights, Big City: Dead City?s Joycean set pieces get a deft treatment.

Recently, Sheila Callaghan’s plays have been making the rounds of D.C. companies that traffic in the new, the challenging, and occasionally—as cultural critic M. Szyslak opined—the weird-for-the-sake-of-weird. Catalyst, Woolly Mammoth, and now Rorschach have presented Callaghan’s surreal, allusive work, which tends to challenge six different theatrical conventions before the first act break. You’d thus be forgiven if, upon hearing that Callaghan’s 2006 play interpolates James Joyce’s Ulysses, you steeled yourself for an evening spent deep inside a recursive feedback loop of devices and conceits. Which, yeah, is sort of what happens—though that turns out to be anything but a dealbreaker. In fact, the result’s a bit like reading Joyce’s epic: long stretches of willfully obscure stuff you just don’t get, interrupted by haunting, gorgeously realized set pieces that inspire you to keep going. As we follow middle-aged Samantha Blossom (Wyckham Avery) through the streets of Manhattan, she meets her Daedalus in the form of an angry young poet (Rachel Beauregard), dallies with a cybersuitor (Danny Gavigan), and returns home to her cheating spouse (Tim Getman). But the plot’s really just there to hang some lovely bits of language and stagecraft on. And director Frederick sets to, as when she places Avery in the center of a dance floor and has her fellow actors swirl around her, mouthing Samantha’s dark recriminations. That scene builds with a manic energy and climaxes with some cleverly designed, beautifully staged property damage involving a mirror ball. A dream sequence that turns Getman into a sort of transvestite Shiva the Destroyer is puzzling, to be sure—but you can’t say it doesn’t look great. And when Avery and her mysterious online paramour finally meet to swap spit—and a good deal more—it’s funny and weirdly unsettling for reasons you should discover for yourself. (Gavigan’s great in both aspects of her e-lover’s incarnations—first as the Baudrillard-quoting avatar who evinces an “enigmatic use of punctuation,” then as the all-too-IRL guy behind it.) Amid all this dramaturgical flash, quieter moments get the room they need to register. The deft, grounded Avery supplies the evening with its emotional heft in a monologue about the many unspoken deals she has brokered in her marriage. Getman, as Callaghan’s take on Molly Bloom, is handed perhaps the evening’s biggest challenge: you don’t need a Bloomsday book to know that we’ll close with a long discursive monologue from him or to reckon the enormous amount of emotional work that speech needs to do. But Getman does that work, and in such a quiet, unshowy manner that you forgive the play’s too-frequently namechecked obsessions with metempsychosis and postmodern thought and say to yourself, simply: yes I said yes I will yes.

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