Please note: This post contains spoilers.
When It Rains is the closest thing we get this festival to a regular old play, although this production by Canada’s 2b Theatre is neither regular nor old. It’s the story of two couples, Anna and Louis and Sybil and Alan, whose lives as individuals and couples fracture, fall apart, and in the case of one person, end completely.
It’s billed as a live action existential graphic novel, which sounds like the kind of thing theater companies say and then fail to live up to, because that’s a hell of a specific and weighty description to satisfy.
In the case of When It Rains, however, that billing is completely accurate. The story is nothing if not existential, and the staging actually accomplishes the graphic novel look and feel, which is such a popular aesthetic and yet so hard to do right. The entire set, except for two plain office-type chairs, consists of projected shadow-like images — a dining room with a table, windows, and a fan, a bedroom, a small café, a park. There’s a narrator who sounds like the iPhone’s Siri, and who rattles off statistics and provides some short exposition on the characters at the beginning of the play. Text plays a large part in the staging as well, appearing on the plain black backdrop as stage direction, translation, and once as a significant piece of dramatic irony. Well, as significant as anything is in When It Rains‘ existential plot.
Within that plot, two marriages crumble, a man ceases communicating with those around him and goes to live on the street, another man loses his job (probably), his child, and his wife, one woman loses her will to live and eventually dies, and the other searches for meaning that she never finds.
It’s bleak, for sure, and also somewhat disconnected and baffling — until you put it in the existentialist context, which, frankly, I’d forgotten was a part of the play at all. Then you can stop wondering what the meaning of it all is (that’s something they actually address, obliquely, in the play) and appreciate the sad absurdity.
That’s not to say there is no meaning at all to the trials that Anna, Louis, Sybil, and Alan undergo. For example, one major theme in the play is the breakdown of communication. After Sybil and Alan’s baby dies (we are told this in text on the background), Sybil ceases speaking. After Anna and Louis break up, Louis, a Frenchman, refuses to speak anything but French, which the people around him don’t understand. He even speaks French from the stage, sometimes with a projected translation, sometimes without. Anna goes on a week-long silent retreat, although it doesn’t seem to do much for her. ln fact, none of the characters seem to truly grow or change. Any time true connection seems about to happen, it’s thwarted or backed away from.
It actually made me think of Albert Camus’ famous existentialist novel The Stranger, which I read in high school on a whim with absolutely no context. Who knows whether there’s an actual connection, but I had the same sort of disconnected, detached feeling watching When It Rains that I did reading that book.
There’s also this idea of choosing misery over happiness; Alan brings it up with Louis, and at one point in the show, the stage direction seems to choose misery over happiness, too, typing out a happy ending, deleting it, and giving us a tragedy instead.
I have to say that between the story and the staging, the staging is the reason to see this performance. It’s really amazing how crisp and effective the projected set is — it gives the play a unique, stylized look that only feels gimmicky once, when Alan (played by co-creator Anthony Black) pours a projected wine bottle into a projected wine glass.
Other than that, everything works. The bedroom scene, which has us looking down from above on the actors in their bed, is especially cool. Oh, and there is one scene of full frontal nudity, but it fits the plot and is pretty mild.
It’s a unique, interesting show, totally worth seeing. I’d say it’s another win for Canadian theater at Spoleto.
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