Que Sera, Sarah

Show #48: The Wind and Rain, Exit Theatre, April 23.

Rebecca Jackson and Jenna Bean Veatch in The Wind and Rain. Photo by Bryan R. Thomas

The Exit Theatre’s annual DIVAfest of work by women artists turned out to be a little pared down this year. Maggie Cronin’s one-woman pirate show A Most Notorious Woman starring Exit founder and artistic director Christina Augello has been postponed until July, leaving the fest with one new play, The Wind and Rain, and one cabaret show revived from last year, Lady of the ’Loin, plus an art exhibit and a reading series.

Written and directed by Claytie Mason in collaboration with the cast, The Wind and Rain is based on the English murder ballad of the same name—or rather of many names, from “The Twa Sisters” to “Minnorie” to “Cruel Sister.” Not to be confused with the song in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night that also has a chorus about the wind and the rain, this particular ballad tells the sad tale of two sisters from County Clare (misspelled “Clair” in the program, which gets things off to an awkward start with someone like me, whose family hails from there). Both sisters are in love with the miller’s son, who’s “fond of the fairer one,” so the other one shoves her into the river, where she drowns. A fiddler finds the washed-up body and makes a fiddle out of her remains, but it will only play one song, the same song you’re hearing. If that sounds oddly metafictional for a Renaissance-era ballad, the point is really that she sings of her murder to expose her sister’s foul deed.

Molly Millar’s set has three levels of cloth waves in back with pulleys attached to raise and lower them. A small strip of creek is painted on the stage floor. On one side of it is a striped, cloth-covered stump that looks at first like a small platform a circus animal might stand on, and on the other side is a writing desk, small bookcase, and music stand.

From time to time dark-haired sister Finn goes to the ropes in the rear of the stage and uses them to lower or raise the waves, while blonde Sarah opens various zippers on the stump and pulls out flowers or lengthens the weeds sticking out of it. It’s a little distracting and time-consuming, but it’s an inventive way to capture the changing of the seasons.

I call them waves because that’s what they look like, but the waters represent a winding river that Brynna Jourden frequently bobs along as Finn, winding through the three levels in the rear, before quickening the pace and whirling down the small strip on the stage, which is apparently where the river quickens. It’s a curious, floppy little dance, and the more she does it the more it foreshadows that sooner of later Sarah, who can’t swim, is going to have to try that dance herself. Finn keeps trying to teach Sarah to swim, but Sarah always puts it off for another day.

The show opens with both sisters standing in the water, Finn with one hand over Sarah’s mouth and the other at her throat. Then they both start singing the song of the title in lovely a cappella harmony, with an offstage violin joining in at the very end.

It’s a modern take on the story, set in a small American town that Finn can’t wait to leave, for Europe or Africa or anywhere, really. A tomboy in tank top and ripped jeans, she works at a gas station where she keeps getting in trouble for cussing out customers. Jourden’s Finn is generally foul-tempered, moody and aggressive, seeming to enjoy herself only when she’s giving someone a hard time. Jenna Bean Veatch’s Sarah, a waitress at a diner, has a sunnier, dreamier disposition, always picking flowers, watching old movies, and daydreaming about love. Sarah has a crush on an unseen boy who with whom Finn seems to have some history—maybe an ex of hers, maybe less than that—and whom she bad-mouths for inheriting the local sawmill. (“The miller’s son,” you see.) There’s an amusing scene where Sarah practices effusive greetings, presumably for the guy she likes, mirrored by a later scene where Finn rehearses various ways of saying, “Fuck off.” Whatever it was that went down between her and this guy—and we never find out what that might be—she’s clearly not quite over it.

They both talk about building a motel some day. Sarah wants to call it Heaven, Finn prefers Snapshot Shop—which really sounds more like a camera store, but as Finn puts it, “It’s just that Heaven’s supposed to last forever, and all the things where you wish they would, they never do.”

It’s an interesting enough setup, but it hardly goes anywhere from there.  Seasons change and Finn’s still in town, Sarah’s crush turns into secretly dating or something like that, and she still hasn’t learned to swim. It gives a sense that there really is nothing going on in this town, but it makes the pace of the show’s 90 minutes seem pretty slow at times. Not much happens and not much changes until the incident that you know it’s been leading up to from the start—and when that occurs it’s lyrically staged but sort of anticlimactic. That is, ultimately it feels like, “And then she drowned. The end.”

It’s hard to tell who Rebecca Jackson’s impassive character is supposed to be. She occupies what looks like a small home office across the painted river from everyone else. She’s listed in the programmer as Fiddler and when she enters a little ways into the play, at first she seems to function as an occasional accompanist, playing haunting violin during some dramatic moments, and spending the rest of the time silently writing in a notebook at the desk.

After keeping to herself for so long, when she suddenly exchanges a lingering stare with Sarah across the water it seems for a moment as if she represents the boy Sarah’s mooning over, but that’s not it at all. When Sarah tries her hand at swimming and starts to drown, she swims atop the back of the Fiddler, who plays even as she’s bent over at a 90-degree angle. That makes it look as if Jackson represents the river itself, but ultimately that doesn’t quite seem to be the case either. The Fiddler occupies some other plane entirely.

At one point Finn walks with trepidation across the frozen river and finds herself in the Fiddler’s room, looking at her books and stuff and trying to get the Fiddler’s attention, but the latter seems oblivious as she quietly goes about her business. Only when Finn tries to embrace her does it have any effect, as the playing Fiddler makes a fingernails-on-chalkboard sound on her fiddle and walks off suddenly. I couldn’t begin to guess what that scene’s about. Eventually she steps into the role of the Fiddler of the song and finds Sarah, but she remains an elusive figure, mysterious to a fault.

It’s an intriguing play, with some deft turns of phrase and striking, dreamlike images in the staging that provide a curious counterpoint to the humdrum do-nothingness of the sisters’ everyday lives. As a way of bringing the ballad to life, it’s short on story. Not much happens until the one terrible thing happens, and it happens in an offhand way, without intention or resolution. There’s an interesting story in here on the verge of being told, but as yet it’s a song hummed a bit but not quite sung.

The Wind and Rain plays through May 1 at Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy St., San Francisco. http://sffringe.org

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