True story: Hans Christian Anderson — the Danish teller of such famous tall fairytales as The Little Mermaid and The Ugly Duckling — lived a distraught life of unrequited crushes. Among his dashed infatuations were the great Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind and a young man named Edvard, whose marriage to a woman broke Hans Christian’s latently queer heart. No one ever loved him back. (Anderson sublimated his lovelorn sorrow in many of his stories.) A naturalistic play that told the truth about his lovesick loneliness would be a Nordic downer, not something even Ibsen could pull off. But playwright Julia Izumi has taken an ingenious and determinedly lighthearted approach: Her Sometimes the Rain, Sometimes the Sea, now playing in a fanciful and frothy Rorschach Theatre production at Atlas, recasts those sad biographical facts as a fabulist hodgepodge of fresh fairytales with diverse new characters. The whole show is a riff on one-way romances, and it’s told in an upbeat children’s-theater style — except it’s not something little ones would understand. (Plus it’s got some F-bombs.) At the play’s aching adult heart is what one character calls the “horrible pang of loving someone you can never be with.”
We enter a world lit in pastel pink, blue, and yellow with ginormous cutout clouds and upside-down white umbrellas overhead (Sarah Beth Hall’s cute set predicts the copious amount of rain that will fall as the story unfolds). Those two-dimensional clouds serve as projection screens for storybook-style scenic animations and comic-book-style thought balloons (Hailey LaRoe’s immersive video design is a fascination all its own). Once the actors enter, they become like live-action figures in some picture-book-illustrated locale.
The first actor we meet plays a nonhuman, Rain Cloud, wearing a bug-eyed cloud headdress and a poofy tulle skirt (the costumes by Alexa Cassandra Duimstra are sometimes caricatures and sometimes conventional depending on what’s going on, which is always a lot). Rain Cloud (a persuasively impassioned Sydney Dionne) falls instantaneously in love with a young man name Ralmond (a nimbly expressive Jordan Brown). Out of nowhere, she blurts: “I want you. I want you to love me.” Though Ralmond does love rain, he explains, he can’t love her, because he has a girlfriend, named Midi.
Rain Cloud consults her cow friend, Bessie (Arika Thames, amusing in a goofy bovine getup), who offers wise relationship advice and muses in moos that get translated as supertitles: Rain Cloud needs to become human, Bessie says, and “you cannot be a full human unless someone loves you.”
Soon after Rain Cloud’s insta-romance is rebuffed, we get another: A noble prince named Edvard (yeah, the character is named after HCA’s himbo flame) is suddenly smitten with a woman, a passerby stranger named Ina, who wants only directions to a seamstress, not an affair. The physical comedy and banter between Colum Goebelbecker’s earnest Lothario as Edvard and Jordanna Hernandez’s take-no-guff, got-better-things-to-do Ina is a highpoint of hilarity, as in this exchange after Ina tries to leave but Edvard cuts her off:
EDVARD: But I think I’m in love with you!
INA: But I think you’re unwell.
EDVARD: You don’t believe in love at first sight?
INA: I don’t believe you can know someone in a minute.
EDVARD: You know I’m unwell in a minute.
INA: I have evidence.
EDVARD: I have evidence too! In my body!
INA: Excuse me?!
In a subsequent domestic scene between Ralmond and Midi (a brisk and officious Janine Baumgardner), we see how he adores her but we learn she’s probably more in love with her career than with him.
Occasionally a young girl in a pink rain slicker skips by like a vision, a Little One (a delightful Jolene Mafnas), about whom Rain Cloud and Ralmond have some of the play’s loveliest lines:
RAIN CLOUD: This small human is raining from her face. And I thought maybe she was a rain cloud who had managed to become human.
RALMOND: She’s just…crying. That’s the human rain. It waters our hearts. Your rain waters the Earth.
And so the show goes, one meta sketch after another, each acted committedly and as broadly as the Lab II stage can contain, and each somehow touching on the agony of unilateral infatuation.
Playwright Izumi is a fount of fabulation but her quirkiest twist is her introduction of the character Dolan, who is revealed to be a stand-in for HCA himself. Dolan pops in now and then because, as he explains, he wants to show us he’s a genius by writing a story called The Little Rain Cloud, but it keeps being interrupted by other narratives that go their own way. In frustration, he repetitively punctuates the action by calling a cue for thunder and lighting (which are astonishingly accomplished in sound by Veronica J. Lancaster and lighting by Dean Leong). Dolan is morose, eager to please, and not always appealing in his self-obsession, but Nick Martin plays the complex interloper well enough, discreetly hinting at HCA’s penchant for instance for Edvard, who at one point confronts him:
EDVARD: You write this cruel narrative about yourself where you are perpetually a victim—
HANS: All I can do is write narratives! That is how I survive this vicious world.
For those even peripherally familiar with The Little Mermaid and Anderson’s biography, there are plenty of cross-references. There is a scene, for instance, in which all the actors except Dolan tauntingly read back to him snippets from letters Anderson sent to his actual inamoratas and inamoratos. It comes off as kind of cruel. As well it might. As upbeat and playful as is the production — and Gregory Keng Strasser’s ambitious direction misses no chance to inject glittery spectacle or a fast-paced chase — there is no getting around the fact that it only thinly disguises the pain that stabs like a dagger when a heart full of hope and longing is snubbed. As much as Sometimes the Rain, Sometimes the Sea looks, sounds, and feels like tasty fluffy cotton candy, it’s a cleverly spun confection concealing a shiv.
Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission.
Sometimes the Rain, Sometimes the Sea plays through April 16, 2023, presented by Rorschach Theatre performing in Lab Theatre II at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street NE, Washington, DC. Tickets ($45 general admission, $30 senior and student) are available online.
The program for Sometimes the Rain, Sometimes the Sea is online here.
COVID Safety: Face masks are required at all times for all patrons, visitors, and staff regardless of vaccination status in all indoor spaces in the Atlas Performing Arts Center.
Masks may be briefly removed when actively eating or drinking in designated areas. See Atlas’ complete COVID policy here.
Sometimes the Rain, Sometimes the Sea
By Julia Izumi
Directed by Gregory Keng Strasser
DESIGN AND PRODUCTION
Set Design: Sarah Beth Hall
Costume Design: Alexa Cassandra Duimstra
Video Design: Hailey LaRoe
Sound Design: Veronica J. Lancaster
Lighting Design: Dean Leong
Props Design: Rooster Skylar Sultan
Stage Management: Caraline Jeffrey
Adam B. Ferguson (Production Manager), Natasha Sánchez (Assistant Stage Manager), Emily Sucher (Intimacy Coordinator), Simone Schneeberg (Technical Director), Ben Harvey (Master Electrician),
Rain Cloud: Sydney Dionne
Bessie: Arika Thames
Ralmond: Jordan Brown
Midi: Janine Baumgardner
Edvard: Colum Goebelbecker
Ina: Jordanna Hernandez
Dolan: Nick Martin
Little One: Jolene Mafnas
Understudies: Nathanael Hatchett, Daniella Ignacio, Karen Lange, Aron Spellane, Majenta Thomas
PRODUCED BY Randy Baker and Jenny McConnell Frederick