The wind does not so much howl as scream at the start of “Strong Wind” by Jon Fosse at Scena Theatre. This is Scena’s third Fosse production, and the first since he won the 2023 Nobel Prize in Literature. He was also the winner of the Ibsen Award in 2010. This American premiere of “Strong Wind” marks Fosse’s return to theatre after a near decade hiatus.
…a captivating play.
Fosse calls this play a scenic poem. Its spare language carves out the Man’s attempts to understand his world and his disorientation within it. The plot itself is simple. The Man (Stas Wronka) returns after a trip to find that his wife, Woman (Sissel Bakken), has moved into a different home with a Young Man (Robert Sheire). It positions the Man as a returning Odysseus to a Penelope who did not wait faithfully. This scenic poem, which takes place “everywhere and nowhere at once,” becomes the Man’s meditation on his situation, interwoven with his dreamlike attempts to understand or control it. Director Robert McNamera uses the intimate space at DCAC to his advantage. The actors’ physicality fills the space with orgiastic movements, heightening the surreal setting while implicating the audience as voyeurs— alongside the Man—to the intimacy the Woman and Young Man brazenly share.
Wronka carries the weight of the Man’s emotions and balances it with moments of humor. He drives the play from its abstract beginning to its desperate end. His pressing concerns are met with eager insistence from the Young Man that they can share the Woman. Sheire’s Young Man does not flag under the Man’s berating, rather, he maintains an openness that is inviting and, at times, seductive.
For a play that begins with the Man disoriented and incapable of finding his setting, the lighting design by Michael C. Stepowany and Carl Gudenius becomes a crucial element of storytelling. Light casts ephemeral windows across the stage and slowly narrows into the world as the Man discovers it. The sound design by Denise Rose, with music by Roger Doyle and Andrew Bellware, creates a robust world full of wind and noise that fills the emptiness of the set.
This story is the Man’s story. It is about his inability to accept the situation and its distortions in his mind. With this in mind, “Strong Wind” is a captivating play. Yet, this play and this performance do not exist in a vacuum. In one scene, the Man watches in horror and fascination as the Young Man rapturously kisses and sucks on the Woman’s toes. She asks him not to bite her toes multiple times. He does so anyway. While she seems conflicted, she shows some pleasure as the Young Man continues to bite her. There are many ways to interpret this scene. The Woman and Younger Man have a connection the Man never had with her; the Man never truly understood the Woman’s desires; or the Young Man instinctually knows how best to please the Woman, beyond either the Woman or Man’s previous understandings. This scene is visceral, albeit effective, in getting the audience into the Man’s headspace.
Still, I wonder about the care of the audience. This is a heavy scene and, regardless of the Woman’s reaction, there are major consent issues. Later, something else is alluded to and could also possibly be triggering. The space between audience and actors for both is small. The actions are in your face and hard to escape. There was no content warning in the program or on the theatre’s website and I believe that a warning could have been shared in a way that did not diminish from the audience’s experience.
Running Time: One hour without an intermission.
“Strong Wind” runs through November 26, 2023 at The DC Arts Center, Adams Morgan, 2438 18th St. NW Washington, DC, 20009. For more information and to purchase tickets, go to online.