Fosse’s minimalism takes the stage
The Norwegian playwright is a challenge for American audiences, but this Washington, DC, production of Someone is Going to Come brings life to the spaces between words
Christine Foster Meloni
Works by Norwegian playwright Jon Fosse present a serious challenge. American audiences usually expect a play to have an evolving plot and a certain amount of action. Plots in Fosse’s plays seem to move slowly and exist more in the mind than in outward action.
Scena Theatre’s Artistic Director Robert McNamara has accepted the challenge and successfully produced Fosse’s first play (1995), Someone is Going to Come. Opening night of the Washington, D.C., premiere of this work took place on January 9 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center.
The play has three characters: He, She, and The Man. The absence of names immediately gives a clue to the playwright’s intention to give his characters a sense of universality.
When the play begins, She, played by Nanna Ingvarsson, and He, played by David Bryan Jackson, are standing in front of an old, dilapidated house by the sea that they have recently bought, sight unseen. They chose this house in a very remote area because they want to be alone, to be alone together.
They initially seem excited because their dream is going to be realized. But at the same time they appear fearful, especially She. They delay going into the house, trying to convince themselves that they will now be very happy.
She is the first to begin to crack. Maybe the isolation they desired will be too overwhelming, she thinks. And the vastness of the sea frightens her. Then she begins to fear that someone will come, that they will not be alone together. She is certain. Someone will come.
He tries to reassure her that everything will be fine, that they will be very happy. No one is going to come. They finally decide to enter the house. Soon they hear noises outside. He thinks he sees someone through the window. They go outside to check. He goes behind the house while She sits down in front.
Then The Man, played by Joseph Carlson, appears. He approaches She and begins to explain who he is. He was the house’s owner and gloats about the money he has made on the sale. He never thought anyone would buy the run-down house. She soon falls into a catatonic state as he continues to talk, unaware that he is simply talking to himself.
When He reappears and notices The Man talking to She, he suffers an extreme jealous reaction. He becomes distraught and eventually curls up on the couch, unable to speak.
The play ends with no clear indication of the fate of He and She. He is jealous. How can he live in this place knowing that The Man lives nearby? She is fearful. How can she live here knowing that The Man lives nearby?
The minimalist Fosse has given the characters simple sentences that are short and concise. Many of these sentences are repeated over and over again. This repetition could be extremely boring but the actors succeed masterfully in making each repetition sound fresh by varying their intonation and volume and their facial expressions. The audience then tends to find the words themselves less important and begins to focus beyond the dialogue to the actors’ movements, silences, and pauses.
The play is undeniably dark. This is in keeping with much modern Norwegian literature. McNamara, however, finds latent humor in it. Many in the audience were hesitant at first to laugh but soon felt comfortable, thinking that perhaps Fosse and/or the director meant to temper the desperation of the play’s characters with humor.
He and She themselves are not laughable, far from it. They are desperate, unhappy individuals. But how they react to their state is at times humorous because of their dramatic reactions as well as their exaggerated body movements and dramatic expressions.
Fosse is currently the most performed living European playwright. His plays have been translated into more than 40 languages and have found success around the world. But it takes courage to present Fosse to an American audience. McNamara explains why this is the case:
“Our theatrical tradition is largely that of realism or ‘naturalism.’ Jon Fosse is anything but realistic—but he is real. His plays ask that an audience work a bit more to get into them—that they ‘participate’ in his world, in his universe. It is an active journey that you make with Fosse in his world.”
Because of his deep interest in Fosse, McNamara is determined to make the Norwegian’s plays understood and accepted in the United States. “I am attracted to Jon Fosse’s writing and work by his Vision. His language is economical but fully realized as more of a series of tone poems than conventional writing for the stage. It is the shocking brilliance of his writing and characters that compels me to hear his voice. And then to want to bring it to the stage.”
After the opening performance, American Marie Hansen was asked for her reaction to the play. “The acting was superb,” she replied. “The entire play depended on the quality of the actors because it was completely dependent on the different, subtle ways of expressing the same few phrases. It seemed like an exercise in acting and, for the audience, an exercise in filling in the blanks. I like this kind of ‘exercise’ now and then, but for a steady diet, I like a well-plotted story with rich characters.”
The enthusiastic response of Norwegian Jon-Åge Øyslebø showed that he was more attuned to the writing of Fosse and felt that the production captured the essence of the playwright. “True to Jon Fosse’s minimalistic writing style, I think Robert McNamara and the cast managed to create the tension and nerve that this play calls for. The characters are credible; you really feel for them in their odd pursuit of what they think is happiness.”
And Øyslebø singled out the speech of The Man in particular: “I particularly liked the fact that The Man had a way of speaking that reminded me both of small towns in the Appalachians and of the movie Fargo, which added to the atmosphere of remoteness.”
Fosse is frequently compared to his great fellow countryman, Henrik Ibsen. He reacts by saying that the comparison is a disservice to Ibsen and a disservice to him as well.
Scena’s production of Someone is Going to Come runs through February 5 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center at 1333 H Street NE in Washington, D.C.
This article originally appeared in the Jan. 27, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.