Once stands out from most Broadway plays by managing to be authentic and achingly intimate and still have swelling, boot-stomping, big numbers. Before the show even begins, the audience is invited on stage, where the house band rollicks through a number of Irish folk songs (the stage opens up again during intermission to serve booze). Then the lights dim on the set, made to look like an aging bar covered in mirrors—a simple but hauntingly effective tool—and we're whisked into a working class Dublin world, where a street performer is about to abandon his musical dreams when a young Czech woman falls in love with his songs, igniting a romance too strong for just words. The direction is tight and refreshing—the house band remains on stage and plays both characters and stage hands—and the music at its best is truly spine-tingling. It's no wonder the play swept eight Tonys, plus a Grammy.
Once is one of four Irish plays playing June, offering a local PhD of sorts in Irish Lit. That’s a lot of craic to take in, however, so if you’re feeling a bit out of your depth, here are a few things to know about Irish theatrical tradition to help you make sense of it all.