Points for prescience go to Scena Theatre and artistic director Robert McNamara for programming the U.S. premiere of a play mere months before its Norwegian author was awarded the 2023 Nobel Prize in Literature. That acclaimed author is Jon Fosse, who is produced in Europe more often than any other living playwright yet is still little known in the U.S. The well-timed work on offer is Strong Wind, an absorbing prose-poem drama that plays in one’s mind like a linguistic trickster.
The time and place of the play, teases the program, is “Everywhere and Nowhere at Once.” The central character, identified as The Man, dressed in plain brown shirt and pants, could pass for the nonentity referenced in Lennon and McCartney’s “Nowhere Man.” He enters the nondescript black box space and dithers through a long, disconnected monologue that in Stas Wronka’s inspired inflection steadily reels us in.
The Man doesn’t so much tell a story as try to find it in his mind and recall it out loud to no one in particular. “I know so little,” he says, woebegone. “Thinking is not for me.”
In The Man’s cyclical, incantatory rambling are pleasures tucked in like treats by the playwright: a delightful digression on the difference between “wink” and “blink,” for instance, accompanied by Wronka’s clownlike expression. And this profound discursus on the brevity of “now”:
there’s only a now
no matter how brief
or just the past
but the past only exists as a memory
and therefore that doesn’t exist either
and the future only exists as a thought
and so that doesn’t exist either
So the only thing that exists
at least for us human beings
is a now
that is so brief that it’s gone
before it has been thought
To the extent that Strong Wind has a storyline (and it’s never clear whether The Man is remembering it or imagining it or perhaps lost in a brain fog), The Man has been away from home traveling and returns to discover that his wife, The Woman he lived with and loved, has moved someplace else and taken The Young Man as a lover.
The Woman (a strikingly stately Sissel Baker) and The Young Man (a spirited and besotted Robert Shire) appear on stage, as real to us as to the Man. She wears a tweedy, designer-chic jacket; he wears ripped jeans and a roughhewn woolly coat (costumes designed by Carolan Corcoran and Mei Chen). In no time, their matching long blond locks entwine and their fingers link and their arms embrace and their lips kiss and they make out in slo-mo as The Man gapes in jealous pique.
The Man goes into vertigo and his brain goes on spin cycle:
…they can’t stand there
and I can’t stand here
and look at them
Because that’s not how it is
never like this
One does not expect an ascetic and absurd text such as Strong Wind to turn ribald and comedic, but in director McNamara’s sure hands, it sure does.
The Woman wants The Man to leave. He won’t. The Man wants The Young Man to leave. He won’t. The three are at an impasse (don’t ask how it ends).
The Man’s possessiveness is plain. The Woman’s passivity is unmissable (“Don’t you have a will of your own?” The Man scolds her). The Young Man’s horny intrusiveness is obvious. And at a point, the trope of cuckolded husband flirts with a homo-porny subtext.
The Scena production is as spare and purposeful as the playwright’s prosody. Just two benches and some windows projected on the walls plus simple and effective light cues (scenic and lighting design by Michael C. Stepowany and Carl Gudenius). But the sound design (by Denise Rose) is outstanding. Much of the performance has what seems a cinematic soundtrack including by turns a gale-force wind, ominous rumbling, stunning strains of electronica and string discord (music composed by Roger Doyle and Andrew Bellware). The world of the play is an aural wonder and its words are a cerebral kick.
Running Time: 60 minutes with no intermission.
Strong Wind plays through November 26, 2023, presented by Scena Theatre at the DC Arts Center in Adams Morgan, 2438 18th St NW, Washington, DC. Performances are 7:30 PM Wednesdays through Saturdays, and 2:30 PM on Sundays. Tickets are $45 and are available on Eventbrite here. Use code FOSSE15 for 15% off.
Due to renovation in progress at the DC Arts Center, there is no restroom.
COVID Safety: Masks are optional.
Written by Jon Fosse
Translated by May-Brit Akerholt
THE MAN: Stas Wronka
THE WOMAN: Sissel Bakken
THE YOUNG MAN: Robert Sheire
Director: Robert McNamara
Composers: Roger Doyle, Andrew Bellware
Sound Design: Denise Rose
Scenic and Lighting Design: Michael C. Stepowany, Carl Gudenius
Costume Design: Carolan Corcoran and Mei Chen
Stage Manager: Laura Schlachtmeyer
Assistant Director: Anne Nottage
Production Associate: Cate Brewer
MORE ABOUT JON FOSSE AT SCENA THEATRE:
Magic Time!: ‘Someone Is Going to Come’ (a workshop production) at Scena Theatre (column by John Stoltenberg, October 11, 2014)
Magic Time! ‘Someone Is Going to Come’ at Scena Theatre (column by John Stoltenberg, January 13, 2017)
Scena Theatre to present U.S. premiere of Jon Fosse’s ‘Strong Wind’ (news story, September 24, 2023)