2/16/2020        ONCE                            Horizon Theatre



“Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow”  -- James Joyce


A busker on a Dublin street corner rips out a piece of his soul with song.  Passers-by ignore him.  It’s time to abandon his dream of music and embrace his dull day-to-day as a Hoover repairman.


An immigrant from the Czech Republic, a single mother abandoned by her husband, hears a busker and is touched by his musical heart.


From such small beginnings rise a friendship, a collaboration, a force of nature whose arc (whose ART) cannot be denied.


In 2007, a plucky Indie movie musical called Once told the story of the meeting and collaboration between a Dubliner (played by Glen Hansard) and a Czech immigrant (played by Markéta  Irglová).  Since Hansard and Irglová also wrote the songs (and formed a group together), hints of autobiography are encouraged;  indeed, the screenplay was tweaked to suggest their personal friendship. The movie was a major hit and even garnered an Academy Award for the song “Falling Slowly.”


In 2011, the screenplay was adapted by Dublin playwright Enda Walsh for the musical stage, and Once: A Musical, became the hit of the 2012 Tony Awards.

“The artist, like the God of Creation, remains within or behind or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails”  -- James Joyce


“Girl” (they are not named in the movie or here) recognizes that “Guy’s” songs are rooted in love and loss, a loss and love he does not acknowledge.  She recognizes his connection to his lost love and resists any deeper connection, especially since she has dreams of her own husband joining her (and their daughter) in Dublin.


Dublin, which, like Joyce’s Ireland, eats its own artistic farrow – music is canned and wafer-thin (Enya aside), literature and poetry have died with Joyce and Yeats and Shaw and Wilde (and even Joyce and Wilde lived mostly in exile).  Buskers, even those with soul-stirring Broadway-belt voices are lepers, reduced to being “Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guys.”  Still, Girl and Guy build a band of misfits and record a demo that will get him to New York and his wayward love.


That’s not to deny the attraction building – music does stimulate the heart after all;  when he asks if she still loves her husband, she can only replay "Miluji tebe" (Czech for "I love you"). 


“Think you’re escaping and run onto yourself.  Longest way round is the shortest distance home.” -- James Joyce


Horizon Theatre is the first Atlanta venue to stage a professional production, and it is gloriously rapturous, capturing an energy, a love for music, that is positively enthralling.  This is my favorite production of the year to date; there are many reasons for that.


Firstly, director Heidi Cline McKerley has chosen to stage it “in the round,” giving the whole thing an intimacy, an immediacy that draw you in from beginning to end.


Secondly, the script encourages, nay DEMANDS, the “back-up” musicians to be part of the cast playing all the supporting roles, constantly on stage, a “chorus of Dubliners, naïve and immigrant”  They start out in the preshow with traditional Irish pub songs, showering the audience with joie de vivre (or should I say “aoibhneas maireachtála”?) that is positively infectious.  Ms. McKerley blocks (and choreographs) them in complex patterns hat dazzle without sacrificing sight-lines or energy.  All are on stage for practically the entire show, playing from all corners of the theatre.


Thirdly, this is an extraordinarily talented cast that absolutely bowled me over.   Chase Peacock added another Suzi-worthy performance as Guy, opening the show with “Leave,” a painfully sincere ballad that is like a raw nerve newly exposed.  Maggie Salley, so memorable in last year’s Song for a New World, is even more memorable here, giving girl a depth, an honesty, a heart that appeals to everyone she encounters, especially us.


The ensemble is as impressive as ensembles can possible be.  Daniel Burns plays Billy (and guitar), a music store owner who befriends girl. Paul Glaze plays a bank manager (and a cello – even while walking) who provides the “stake” for their recording session.  Skyler Brown, Chris Damiano, Jessica De Maria, Hayden Rowe, and Sophia Sapronov play several characters, most notably Girl’s Czech roommates and family (and percussion, mandolin, ukulele, accordion, violin, and more guitars).  Young Violet Montague has a cameo as Girl’s daughter and adds some delightful “color” to the immigrant scenes.


And ALL the cast ably negotiate the accents, Irish and Czech alike, thanks in no small part to Dialect Coach Carolyn Cook.  Of course, not being Irish or Czech myself, I’m not convinced I’m in a position to judge, but they convinced me, and their dialogue was as musical as their songs.


Set Designers Isabel and Mariah Curley-Clay have rebuilt the entire space, convincing us we’re in a Dublin pub (the sign “Howth Castle 6 km” brought back college nightmares of Finnegans Wake), an extraordinarily beautiful Celtic Cross design on the floor ever-reminding us where we are.  It doesn’t hurt that Irish Beer and Irish Whiskey are both available at the concession stand.


Once is a rapturous experience, joyful, dazzling, energetic, romantic, and above all, soaked with a love and a joy for music and for the complexities that rise from the human heart.  And it is, without a doubt, a love song to Dublin and Ireland.


“When I die, Dublin will be written in my heart”. -- James Joyce

     -- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com    @bk_rudy     #htcONCE) 

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