The actors are holding an Irish music jam — E.J. Zimmerman is singing Red-haired Mary, buoyant with the syncopated swing of the reel —
I was going to the fair at Dingle
one fine morning last July
when going down the road before me,
a red haired girl I chanced to spy …
She’s laughing, holding the stage as she picks up a high harmony on fiddle, and J. Michael Zygo comes in on the chorus, strumming his guitar like a challenge. Will Boyajian is dancing foot percussion while he picks banjo. The whole cast of Berkshire Theatre Group’s Once are musicians, and all the musicians are actors.
For me that energy becomes one of the finest forces in the play. The confidence and shared pleasure and skill of it run like a current, even when the story moves in shadow. David Toole plays a man in Dublin, a singer-songwriter at a very low time. He is ready to leave his guitar on the curb and walk away. And a woman stops him.
She sees him standing on the edge, and she knows how that feels, enough that she is willing to try to stop him. Thinking of the script and imagining that scene, I’m imagining what it would take to do that, to walk up to a someone completely unknown and talk honestly, without pretenses.
You would need the energy of that music, confident, teasing, launching into action and taking responsibility, taking a risk with a glint in your eye. That kind of energy fuels the arc of the play, getting people up and moving — recharging — bringing energy back when you’ve almost lost hope for it.
And it moves me to hear a musical shaped around indy singer-songwriter folk-rock, and the kind of music I know from college quads at 3 a.m. and cafés in the off hours and festivals in the rain — the kind you can get lost in like a flying conversation and surface hours later — the kind I’ve played, enough to know the rush of it.
Toole convinced me as the singer (whose name we never know). He’s angry, pulled tight enough to do something damaging to himself and everyone around him, and sometimes callous, but he’s willing to take a chance, and sometimes to take a step toward honesty.
He has real challenges to face. His mother has died in the past year and his father has sold house where he grew up. The woman he loved has moved to New York, and we have a sense that many of the people he grew up with have left town, left Ireland, for places with more potential.
And the Czech the woman who has the guts to talk with him (we don’t know her name either) — as she’s written, she has power. She has come to a new country and learned a new language, and she’s sharing a small apartment with five people and supporting both her mother and her daughter. Her father and her husband have both abandoned her.
And she’s still willing to make a human contact with an unknown guy in pain — and to call him out. When he tries to take advantage of her honesty, and Andrea Goss as the woman tells him bluntly what to do with himself, that stays with me.
In other places, the play interlaces their story with set pieces — one of the band-and-cast will step in and pick up a role, sometimes only for a scene or two. In this performance, many of these scenes felt like straight comedy, even caricature. Played that way they could feel like interruptions to the central story, when they could have deepened it.
Sometimes I wanted that depth. It never seemed clear here why the woman makes the choices she does, though she has solid reasons. The central men in her life have let her down, and she is responsible for her family — and this guy in a Dublin street, no matter how beautiful his voice, never offers to stay here with her, or asks her what she needs.
She is a force. She has the energy to make and recharge her community, and sometimes she makes the room ring wiht it. But she seems only afraid — if she seems willing to act for him, but not for herself — then for me that interpretation can weaken her. The guy can seem only to take and the woman only to give. And the whole movement of the play tells me she has more in her than that.
And so there were times I missed the energy I’d walked into in the beginning, defiant against the weight of the world. In the song, when Red-haired Mary comes to the fair, the singer’s donkey kicks the policeman and she stands by the singer, bold and blazing, like E.J. Zimmerman as the ex-girlfriend compelling us from New York and Pearl Rhein as Reza dancing on the bar.
This weekend …
Theatre is live across the county, from classics to contemporary voices — Brandon St. Clair, Justin Ahdoot and Chavez Ravine appear in ABCD at Barrington Stage (photos by Daniel Rader), and Gina Fonseca, L. James and Tamara Hickey in Much Ado About Nothing at Shakespeare & Co. (Nile Scott Studios) …
Events coming up …
Find more art and performance, outdoors and food in the BTW events calendar.