by Lynn on September 15, 2011

in The Passionate Playgoer

WHEN THE RAIN STOPS FALLING. a play, and MARIA SEVERA, a musical, are not your usual Shaw Festival fare. They are both outside the Shaw Festival mandate, which is to produce the plays of Shaw and his contemporaries, or at least doing plays that are set during Shaw’s lifetime (1856-1950).

Jackie Maxwell, the Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival, has expanded the mandate further to include plays that reflect issues that Shaw would appreciate—race, politics, love, relationships, the poor vs. the rich.

Both these works fulfill that philosophy. The plays deal with issues of finding out who we are; identity; families who are so ruptured the reverberations are felt for generations, and forgiveness.


At the Studio Theatre of the Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. Written by Andrew Bovell. Directed by Peter Hinton. Designed by Camellia Koo. Lighting by Kevin Lamotte. Starring: Donna Belleville, Wade Bogert-O’Brien, Krista Colosimo, Jeff Meadows, Peter Millard, Ric Reid, Tara Rosling, Graeme Somerville, Wendy Thatcher.

WHEN THE RAIN STOPS FALLING is a fascinating play by Australian playwright, Andrew Bovell.

The play is set in London and various locations in Australia and shifts back and forth between 1959 and 2039.

The play follows five couples, their offspring, and the younger and older selves of two characters. There are four generations of characters. It’s about fathers who leave their families and their sons who grow up wondering about the absent dad. It’s about living and sometimes dying with terrible secrets. And it’s about discovering who you really are. The times are upside down in that it’s always raining and an extinct fish has fallen from the sky in the first scene.

It’s a complex, gripping, compelling play. I loved it.

While the story of WHEN THE RAIN STOPS FALLING is complicated, the production
does a masterful job of keeping it all clear and not confusing. I have to tell you that playwright Andrew Bovell does make the first half-hour of the play a challenge.

A man is drenched in rain. He says his adult son is coming to see him. This man left when the boy was young. The man rails against a world he has created in a sense and his own despair in it. Then an extinct fish falls from the heavens.


One by one the various characters, including their younger and older selves enter, ladle some soup into a bowl and eat it at a large square table. We don’t know who they are, how they are connected, and when we do it might be a challenge to keep track.

That’s the point.

The play will reveal itself slowly. Be brave and just look and listen. The production is blessed in having Peter Hinton direct it, and a terrific cast act it. Hinton has a really sharp, clear eye for the telling detail, for subtlety that keeps the audience looking close and hard.

And he makes it as clear as possible. We notice that the back of each chair has the name of the character and his/her dates of when they are involved in the story.

The time and place of each scene is illuminated on a back wall. And Hinton brings out the best in this wonderful ensemble of actors. He establishes relationships beautifully with his blocking, sometimes using distance to create intimacy, or to establish a chilling revelation. For example, in one scene a young husband has a terrible secret that his wife discovers. It involves young boys. The wife asks if he has ‘touched’ or interfered with their young son. The husband is firm that he has not, but he says tentatively he’s frightened that he will. In the scene the husband and wife are on either side of the large square table—the scene should suggest distance, but it’s directed with such intimacy that it’s as if the two people are right up close to each other.

And with Tara Rosling as the wife and Graeme Somerville as the husband, it just aches with emotion, and makes the audience queasy at what is really happening.

I love the intricacy of this play and the elegant clarity of the production.

The play is challenging but then good theatre always is.


At the Studio Theatre of the Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. Book, music and lyrics by Jay Turvey and Paul Sportelli. Directed and dramaturged by Jackie Maxwell. Musical direction by Paul Sportelli. Choreography by Eda Holmes. Set by Judith Bowden. Costumes by Sue LePage. Lighting by Kevin Lamotte. Starring: Neil Barclay, Sharry Flett, Julie Martell, Mark Uhre,

MARIA SEVERA is an original musical with book, lyrics and music written by Jay Turvey—an actor in the Shaw Company, and Paul Sportelli—the Musical Director of the Shaw Festival.

It’s about Maria Severa renowned fado singer, who lived between 1820- 1846—just before the birth of Shaw. Fado is a genre of Portuguese music that is considered their ‘blues’. The music and lyrics are mournful and deal with songs of love, despair, sadness—hence the blues. Fado means ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’ in Portuguese.

Maria Severa wrote and sang her own songs in her mother’s taverna. Maria Severa was believed to be a prostitute. She meets Armando de Vimioso, a famous bullfighter, who comes from an aristocratic family. He’s engaged to a rich girl—his family needs
the money—her family could use the prestige associated with his family name.

But Armando is besotted by the headstrong and sultry Maria Severa and secretly slinks
off to the taverna to hear her sing and spend time with her.

The music is about the blues. We know it’s not going to end well.

It’s astonishing that Maria Severa died at 26…not even the mystic number of 27 as we have today.

The story deals with her short life and lasting effect of fado.

I think MARIA SEVERA is an improved progression on Tristan, Turvey and Sportelli’s previous musical written for the Shaw Festival—about finding love in a hospital for people with consumption.

I think with MARIA SEVERA, they have a better sense of how to tell the story with music.

And since the play is about a woman who was at the beginning of fado then the use of music is front and centre here. The lyrics are clever and intelligent in creating character and moving the story forward. The music is rich with emotion and texture.

I did find it interesting that when Maria sang two of her fado songs, they seemed to be in the style of the music and lyrics as a whole that Turvey and Sportelli wrote. I would have thought that we should see how different fado is from the music of the show.

That said, Turvey and Sportelli do a good job of fleshing out a story about a woman of whom we know very little. And they also establish a larger story. How the haves and have nots do not mix. It’s a musical about social inequality, power, and the profound effect of money when you are poor and desperate.

Turvey and Sportelli show the grit and toughness of Maria—well she was supposed to be a prostitute, and not with a heart of gold either. She was fearless when she was singing her music because of course her music sang of her life and those of her fellow street people.

As Maria, Julie Martell has a strong voice and knows how to bring out all that character’s toughness, angry and even softness. As her matador lover Armando, Mark Uhre is all grace, and arrogance, but he melts when he sees Maria and hears her sing.

And as his imperious mother Sharry Flett just shines with that hard smile of the aristocracy who looks down on the lower classes. This is a really ambitious woman and Flett plays her with style and class.

It’s directed also with her own style by Jackie Maxwell. Transitions are smooth, the pace relentless—Maria had to pack a lot into a short life. We get a good sense of the time, the life and the people in this story thanks to Turvey and Sportelli’s thoughtful work and Maxwell’s direction.

WHEN THE RAIN STOPS FALLING plays at the Shaw Festival until September 17.

MARIA SEVERA plays at the Shaw Festival until September 23.

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