David Kramer with playbill at Geva’s Godot’s Bar. [Jersey a gift of McQuaid High School and photo by Taj, Geva employee 2/29/20]If you are like me — with a tone deaf ear for music and zero aptitude for making music — you might find that musicals don’t come naturally. But rest assured, the Irish folk songs of Geva’s current production, Once, will captivate you. As described by reviewer Leah Stacey, the ensemble “exudes a contagious energy,” delivering spectacular and expert musical performances.
(FULL GEVA SERIES AT END)
As the ending is revealed, this commentary is probably for those who have already seen the play. That said, in a play featuring songs lamenting Ireland’s tragic and misbegotten past, don’t expect, They Lived Happily Ever After.
Initially, the audience is treated to a positive and boisterous prelude; the lively band belting out classic Irish folk songs, inviting the audience to clap and sing along. In some ways, however, the opening scene following the prelude foreshadows the play’s closure.
We encounter a depressive looking young man with a guitar on a Dublin street playing a mournful tune about sad and seemingly inevitable partings:
We are left to wonder, who will leave — free themselves — and who will stay.
According to the playbill:
The idea for the play [based on the 2007 film adaption] germinated in an Ireland that was basking in the glow of the Celtic Tiger phenomenon [evidenced in the bumptious prelude] — experiencing sudden and unexpected prosperity as a result of foreign investment. The change in the country’s economic status made it an attractive destination for immigrants, particularly from new members of the European Union such as the Czech Republic. (from “Once and a series of Unlikely Events” by dramaturg Jean Gordon Ryan)
The plot focuses on a chance meeting between an Irish singer-songwriter, simply referred to as Guy, and a Czech immigrant, Girl, also a gifted musician. Apparently, Girl moved to Dublin with her daughter, mother and husband, who has abandoned her, returning to the Czech Republic. Now a Hoover vacuum cleaner repairman, Guy is scuffling along in what he sees as a failed musical career, but Girl helps restore Guy’s faith in his talents.
In some ways, Walsh pictures a buoyant Ireland. While the play is initially set in the more downtrodden parts of Dublin — a music store and the repair shop in precarious financial straits — there are signs of the the Celtic Tiger phenomenon. An optimist group of Czech workers have come to pursue the Irish dream. The stage backdrop of shop fronts in different European languages — a French bakery selling patisseries — reflect the immigrant-friendly streets.
Ultimately, in the end, all but one of the character’s prospects are uplifted. Gaining an unlikely bank loan, Guy’s studio recorded demo is a financial windfall benefiting his accompanying band and garnering Guy a contract in New York, and the potential for an internationally-recognized career. Guy can help his father’s struggling repair shop. Billy the music store owner and the guitar-playing gay bank manager — first cast as ideological opponents — leave the stage shoulder-to-shoulder with expectations that the banker will aid the under capitalized business. Now, Guy can reunite with his former Irish girlfriend who moved to New York six months earlier, where she dates another man, apparently disappointed with Guy’s moribund efforts. Guy can bring the Celtic Tiger with him to New York.
Only Girl is left with what seems an unhappy destiny. While Guy does buy Girl a redbow-wrapped piano and despite their apparent mutual love, Girl declines his invitation to leave with him to New York, and doing so, forfeits her own dreams of a real musical career. Although Girl’s marriage is presented as unsatisfying if not loveless — Girl only says of the marriage, “It’s been difficult between us” — when her husband decides to return to Dublin, she acquiesces. For the audience desirous of the happily ever after ending, Girl’s renunciation renders her a martyr, resigned if not forlorn at her piano, sacrificing love and art to duty and guilt.
Is Walsh making the star crossed lovers a parable of the failure of European integration? Not really. Mostly, Once is a celebration of Dublin’s multiculturalism: the band contains an Irishman, a gay Irishman, a half-Spanish Irishman and three Czechs. The half-Spanish Billy is thrilled to be seduced by Re´za, a Czech “Goddess of Desire.” The only social enmity is provincial. Billy dislikes the bank manager not for being a foreigner (nor gay) but for being from Cork: “Get outta Dublin ya big Cork eegit! Ya make me sick! Your accent makes me sicker!”
Perhaps, Girl’s destiny — she tells Guy, “My destiny is to meet you today” — can be understood as her function: Czech Republic-as-Irish-metaphor. Twice, Girl says of herself: “I’m always serious. I’m Czech.” Fundamentally, it’s what serious Girl brings to Ireland that matters, a version of Old World, eastern European fatalism, tested but fixed. Girl may be bringing to Ireland what is already there.
A pivotal moment occurs when Girl contemplates giving free reign to the love between her and Guy. Girl’s mother, Baruška, also lives in the Czech flat, though her husband is absent. We can imagine Baruška as long suffering if not abandoned. She sings a song of a little man (her husband?) who dreams of great adventures and fantastic encounters but stays in his bed (or tomb), emaciated and rotten, “lying in his own shit, his one expression he gave to the world crawled from his mouth . . .” Not so happily ever after.
Perhaps reflecting on her own both absent and unworthy husband, Baruška encourages Girl to break her wedding vow: “Your man–he left you here . . . (Slight pause) –now you can start over . . .” For a moment, Girl may be tempted, just as she is intrigued by Re´za’s sexual indulgences. But, for both mother and daughter, the promise falls flat: “Girl: It’s not a simple thing thing, Mama! Baruška: I know.” Mother and daughter bound by kin, tradition and fatalism.
In his metaphor making, Walsh transposes the woes of Ireland onto the Czech Republic. Girl may be Czech but Walsh endows her with the soul of an Irishwoman. Lurking beneath the Celtic Tiger, in Girl’s destiny are living ghosts of Irish martyrdom, sorrow, lost love and broken dreams