Why you should see Sea by Jon Fosse

Robert M

Photo courtesy of Christine Foster Meloni
Christine Foster Meloni with director Robert McNamara.

Christine Foster Meloni
Washington, D.C.

Robert McNamara is on a mission and theatergoers should take note. Who is McNamara, and what is his mission? He is the innovative artistic director of Washington, D.C,’s Scena Theatre, and he aims to convince American audiences that the Norwegian writer Jon Fosse is a great playwright and worthy of their attention. If anyone can accomplish this goal, he is the one.

On paper, his task looks incredibly easy. Fosse’s plays have been translated into 40 languages. He is the most performed living playwright in Europe today with 900+ productions to his name. He is hugely popular in China. But not in the United States.

Scena is currently performing Fosse’s Sea. McNamara might earn some Fosse fans with this outstanding production. The play is set on a ship and, according to the program, the six characters are traveling through “a modern-day Hades” and facing difficult challenges, as they search for final salvation. The characters are the Shipmaster, the Guitar Player, The Man, The Woman, The Older Man, and The Older Woman.

But why might an American audience not take to this particular play? Several possibilities come to mind.

Most Americans like plots and action. Sea does not have much of a plot, if it has one at all. There is virtually no action, with the actors standing like statues most of the time. The completely bare stage with its three pitch-black walls is not visually pleasing and offers no clues as to where one is. To Americans, who tend to be impatient, the repetitive dialogue that seems to lead nowhere could easily prove boring.

Jon Fosse

Photo by Jae Yi Photography
(left to right) Greg Ongao, Sara Barker, Eamon Walsh & Buck O’Leary in Sea by Jon Fosse.

Fosse provides minimal stage directions and the director must, therefore, be not only courageous but imaginative and thoughtful. The actors must be well chosen and well directed. Fortunately, the entire cast of this production of Sea is exceptional.

If one lets go of traditional expectations, something amazing might happen while watching McNamara’s production. Focusing on the repetitive lines will no longer seem boring as the actors skillfully use their voices to create a certain musicality with their lines. Their faces also become unusually expressive. Voice and facial expressions as well as body movements are key to carrying the play along because of the relative lack of plot. The bare stage also forces the audience to keep sharply focused on the actors, their faces in particular.

Buck O’Leary as the Shipmaster is comfortable in his role and appears to be just the right person to take on the serious obligation of navigating a ship with these particular passengers. Greg Ongao is an enthusiastic musician who amazes as he plays his “air” guitar and provides the only real movement on the stage. Eamon Patrick Walsh plays The Man and seems to fade effectively into the woodwork, while the woman he loves (The Woman) becomes smitten with the Guitar Player.

Jon Fosse

Photo: Jae Yi Photography
(left to right) Buck O’Leary, (left to right) Ellie Nicoll & Kim Curtis in Sea by Jon Fosse.

Sara Barker (The Woman) successfully takes on the central role of the play as she tries to find some order in the tangled relationships of the people on the ship. When she sees the Older Man and the Older Woman, she immediately recognizes them (or thinks she recognizes them) as her parents. They do not recognize her and attempt to get away from her. The Shipmaster and the Guitar Player also beg the Older Couple to look at them and recognize them as their children, to no avail. What does this say about family relationships?

Ellie Nicoli (The Older Woman) is stoically emotional. She shows fear for she has no idea where she is. (Do any of them?) She is strangely confused about the Older Man, played by Kim Curtis. Does she know him or doesn’t she? Is he her husband? The Older Man, although obviously troubled, is more laid back and sometimes adds some humor to a situation otherwise lacking in light moments, particularly when he breaks into dance toward the end of the play.

The audience may never be quite sure what is going on, but observing the outstanding cast perform this unusual play directed by a sensitive, inspired director can be a most enjoyable experience and definitely thought provoking.

Although the plays of Jon Fosse are rarely performed in the United States, many have been translated and published in English.  Sea, for example, is included in Plays Six, published by Oberon Books and available in paperback and Kindle formats.  

Fosse has also written many novels and essays. The following have been reviewed in this newspaper: MelancholyMelancholy II, Morning and Evening, and An Angel Walks through the Stage and Other Essays.


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Christine Foster Meloni

Christine Foster Meloni is professor emerita at The George Washington University. She has degrees in Italian literature, linguistics, and international education. She was born in Minneapolis and currently lives in Washington, D.C. She values her Norwegian heritage.