No matter how many ways each generation of experimentalists have widened the horizons of dramatic storytelling, audiences still expect continuity to fix their minds upon, whether character, causality, or theme. One innovation, now a convention of improvisational theater called “yes, and…” encourages the performer to accept whatever their scene partner introduces, no matter how incongruous it is to what came before. Norwegian playwright Jon Fosse, said by some to be Europe’s most widely performed living dramatist, has not achieved similar success in the Anglophone world, perhaps because he flouts such conventions, as evidenced in Sea, currently making its U.S. debut with Scena Theatre.
Though it looks like a black box theater bereft of scenery beyond a simply constructed bench, the program lists the setting as “a remote desert island.” The shipmaster (Buck O’Leary) claims that he has been “a master of many ships” and that he has “sailed the seven seas.” Though he insists he is on the deck of a ship and that the ship is on the ocean, his main interlocutor, a guitar player (Greg Ongao), remains incredulous, so instead of yes, anding one another, they awkwardly ping-pong the basic facts of the matter until the guitar player seems to accept that he and the shipmaster might not see the same thing. The laughter, instead of coming from the embrace of the increasingly particular and incongruous, comes from an awkward reluctance to live in the same scenario. They cannot even agree whether or not there are others on the ship.
There are others there, wherever there might be, the desert island, at sea, the back of the DC Arts Center, or in a Hades where they have only half-drunk from the waters of forgetfulness that flow through the River of Lethe. A man and a woman (Eamon Patrick Walsh and Sara Barker) experience love at first sight, but similarly avoid embracing any particulars. They cannot start to share their life histories because they don’t have any. Likewise, an older couple (a casually attired Kim Curtis and Ellie Nicoll, in an elegant evening gown and black overcoat) seem uncertain as to their surroundings or how they arrived there. The plot seems to thicken as they mention the estranged offspring they haven’t seen in years. The shipmaster, the guitar player, and the younger woman each take turns seeking a heartfelt reunion that never happens.
Only the guitar player manages to make more than a fleeting connection once he starts to play. In keeping with the bare set, Ongao grips an air guitar, plants his feet in a wide stance, and strikes some cantilevered rock star poses. The music the audience cannot hear arouses excitement in one woman, who begins to sway before leading into a snaky undulating dance.
What to make of it all is another matter. Is Fosse satirizing the transcendental ego inhabiting the philosophies of René Descartes, Jean-Paul Sartre, and others, suggesting that instead of being alone and reconstructing our knowledge from an intellectual attitude of doubt, we are instead trapped in a meaningless existence with an inexperienced scene partner who could benefit from an acting class? Is it a claim that the guitar player’s music and the woman’s dancing, the ephemerality of sound and movement, and the erotic feelings we attribute to them, transcend fixed categories of identity and difference, self and other, place and time? Or is Fosse mocking such notions? Maybe he’s poking fun at improv comedy workshops.
Mingling among the colorful mono-prints and digital images of Ellyn Weiss and Richard Dana during the post-show reception in the front gallery of the DCAC, one of the actors could be overheard remarking, perhaps impishly, “I’m interested in other people’s interpretations, because I don’t know what it’s about.” Perhaps that is the secret to Fosse’s inability to replicate the popularity he has in Europe: English speaking audiences don’t fully appreciate the joys of not knowing what it’s about.
To Nov. 24 at 2438 18th St. NW. $15-$35. scenatheatre.org.