Scenario: You live in Dublin, being a washed up vacuum repairman by day, a street performer by night, living with your dad and alienated from hope and love. But really, it’s okay, because the Czech girl you’ve fallen (and sung) for is going to set you up with your ex-girlfriend. Welcome to “Once.”
Pioneer Theatre Company takes Enda Walsh’s adaptation of the 2007 film and pumps this simple story full of electricity. The plot, bare-boned and fleshed out by character, focuses on Guy (Roderick Lawrence), aptly named because he is a guy, and Girl (Hillary Porter), same deal. She encounters him just as he is about to abandon music and his guitar, after a night of busking. Although he almost deflects her blunt questions, he reveals that he repairs vacuums, or Hoovers, which turns out to be convenient because she has a broken vacuum. Insisting that she pay him with music, she saves his guitar from the street and takes him to a music store. Here, she compels him to play some of his music, introducing the Academy Award-winning song, “Falling Slowly.” Over the course of a couple of days, the suggestion of romance develops between them, even as it becomes evident that both of them have unresolved romances in their pasts. Girl has a young daughter and a husband who doesn’t live with her, and Guy has an ex-girlfriend living in New York. Through their emotional connection, they record music and push each other to resolve the problems of their pasts.
“Once” already breaks from musical traditions by letting the music become an organic part of the narrative. Instead of contriving a world where dance and song can be considered normal, this musical reminds us that these elements are very much a part of the world we already live in. From the beginning of the musical, and even while audience members found their seats, the actors performed traditional Irish tunes in an intimate moment that invited the audience into the world. Intimacy was certainly something that director Pirronne Yousefzadeh and the production designers seemed to understand. This quality trickled down even to the set design. From the skeleton of a piano suspended in front of the backdrop sky to the versatile use of the center wall, which folded and unfolded into various scenes, the set (from designer Yoon Bae) captivates. Through this, the set gave us a sense of the suffocation the characters experienced without creating a claustrophobic environment. The rotating stage also reinforced the vitality of the show, giving us a sense of motion even while the characters stewed in introspection.
The film, underpinned by its raw music and humanity, carried its tension under the surface. To be fair, movies can get away with this subtlety in a way stage cannot. In this production, however, characters seemed to become caricatures. The shamelessly minimalistic story does not demand the gimmicks and excessive humor that the minor characters offer. Porter’s Girl is a fiery, animated character, whereas the original character’s strength was not seen through her assertiveness, but her assuredness. The caution usually seen in these characters suggests a greater depth than the written stage characters can allow. The chemistry between the two main characters, already suppressed by the plot, crumbles under the lack of realism. The tender distance written for these characters dissipates beneath the restraint of the delivery. Without moments where the script explicitly tells us they have chemistry, I wouldn’t have known that anything existed between them.
This might have been something entirely out of control of the actors, who proved multiple times how competent they were in their respective roles. The payoff for their romantic frustration, portrayed as gentle resignation in the film, explodes on stage. The volatile accusation between the characters, breaking down in their most heartbreakingly human moment, only goes to show the range of these actors. Although Lawrence didn’t have Glen Hansard’s raw release from the movie, he still projected a tight, controlled passion. There could be no denying the sincerity behind Lawrence and Porter’s gripping performances. This musical feels most confident when it pulls away from Glen Hansard’s original energy and asserts itself as an independent portrait of unrequited love and repurposed emotion.
Having only the film to compare to, my issues with this show come from the script. The actors and musicians took what was offered and delivered beautiful performances. The music, made full-bodied with string performers and elegant choreography, is reason enough to see this show.
Once will be showing at the Pioneer Theatre until March 2. For ticket information, visit pioneertheatre.org.