Exiles | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Splinter Group

at Calo Theater

The year is 1916, and Richard and Bertha Rowan are sharing a prototypical open marriage. Richard's relationship with his extramarital Other, Beatrice, appears to be largely intellectual, but he all but throws his wife into bed with his best friend, Robert--stubbornly denying any glimmer of husbandly jealousy and demanding that his reluctant spouse tell him all the details.

This is a situation tailor-made for comedy--one can imagine what Moliere or Shaw would have made of a character who orchestrates his own cuckolding. But when the author is a melancholy Irish wordslinger and the marriage is modeled on his own, what might be seen as a joke becomes grimly serious. Exiles, James Joyce's sole attempt at play writing, was initially rejected by several producers, most notably William Butler Yeats (then working with the Abbey Theatre in Dublin), who found its "moral ambiguity" disturbing--as if a play composed primarily of a frustrated lover arguing with himself could be anything but ambivalent.

The difficulty with Exiles in performance is not the argument (which after all one can hear verbatim in taverns the world over) but the stomach-turning egotism that moves Richard to manipulate the people he professes to love into faithlessness, then upbraid them for their cruel betrayal. Bertha, far from liberated, is portrayed as a passive and obedient slave, her freedom all but forced upon her by her husband. That impression is heightened in this Splinter Group production by the babyish dress and hairdo imposed on the actress, who has childlike features anyway. Afterward she pleads with everyone not to hate her for what she's done. (When she makes what appears to be a pass at Beatrice, it's startling not because of the unexpected lesbian overtones but because it's the first thing we've seen her do of her own volition.) Robert catches on fairly quickly to his buddy's self-deluding ruse and refuses to continue the game; but Beatrice, like Bertha, helplessly stands silent and immobile while Richard informs her how attracted she is to him.

"Silent and immobile" describes the major portion of Splinter Group's production as well. In fiction an author can deliver a pound of subtext for every ounce of dialogue, and it is possible to bring this verbal density to stage adaptations (as demonstrated by the currently running Lady Chatterley's Lover). But Joyce gives us nothing that would allow us to connect the utterances of his characters--perhaps he assumes that we know everything he knows and therefore need no explanation. The actors are forced to rely on long, intense, furrowed-brow gazes at one another and into space to convey the idea that something is actually bubbling below the static surface, a practice that brings Joyce's absurd premise even closer to parody. An overlong score of well-selected Irish melodies and two intermissions (for set changes) further slow the progress of the evening. On opening night the final sabotage was a badly malfunctioning light board, which rendered illumination levels capricious at best.

Though the sets and costumes have been superlatively researched and represented, and the actors cling to their characters with the dogged endurance of marathon relay runners, this production's virtues cannot rescue Exiles from its encumbrances. Splinter Group's commitment to producing "lost" plays is laudable, but next time they might give more consideration to the reasons for a script's neglect.

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