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BWW Review: SEA at Scena Theatre

BWW Review: SEA at Scena TheatreI have to hand it to Scena Theatre- they consistently elevate interesting, international work. Director Robert McNamara brings Jon Fosse's SEA to DC for its US debut performance at the intimate DC Arts Center, and the performance will surely leave you thinking. Norwegian playwright Fosse, one of Europe's most performed dramatists, has been translated into over 40 languages and, in 2010, won the biggest prize in global theatre- the Ibsen award. There were moments on opening night when all the stars aligned: persuasive acting, poignant dialogue, precise movements, and inspired casting. There were also moments when pacing, language, and the play's inherent incomprehensibility made engaging with Fosse's work difficult.

Scena advertises the following description of Jon Fosse's SEA:

"Join the voyage of a shipmaster who guides a bizarre band of travelers through a modern-day Hades. Six unassuming travelers face riveting challenges on the quest for ultimate salvation. Sea is an episodic tale of lost love in the otherworld that unfolds as past relationships meet present realities."

There is a shipmaster, six unassuming travelers, and threads of lost love in limbo (though the playbill would have us believe the setting is a desert island) but fidelity to the description ends there. Fosse's SEA is much quieter, and less coherent, than Scena's marketing implies. The definition of episodic as "consisting of a series of loosely connected parts or events" even feels a bit of a stretch. Fosse's work just doesn't seem to lend itself to tidy headlines.

On the whole, the actors did a commendable job working with and through Fosse's work. SEA, translated into English by May-Brit Akerholt, is linguistically and stylistically complex. Scena's casting is strong, with standout performances by Greg Ongao as The Guitar Player and Sara Barker as The Woman. Ongao breathed life into each discrete interaction and precise movement- I hope to see him at Scena, and elsewhere, again. Barker, a DC favorite, asserts once again that she is a master of her craft. The ensemble is rounded out by Buck O'Leary (Shipmaster), Eamon Patrick Walsh (The Man), Kim Curtis (The Older Man), and Ellie Nicoll (The Older Woman). Kudos to the ensemble for powerfully navigating the heavy silences demanded by the script, especially in the intimate blackbox.

I'm just not sure I understood Jon Fosse's play. Did it give me a lot to talk about? Sure. My partner and I lobbed ideas about sense of self, capitalism, and the role of the artist all the way home. I also spent the rest of the night down a Jon Fosse internet rabbit hole trying to see if perhaps a well-versed critic could help me unpack my experience. Is this a failing on my part, that I can't just live in the uncertainty demanded by such avant garde theatre? Maybe. I do wonder whether some framing by dramaturge Gabriele Jakobi could have been helpful for the less seasoned, or just plain interested, theatre-goer.

Though Fosse is internationally renowned, his work hasn't yet found roots in the US. Despite McNamara's efforts, I'm not sure SEA will turn the tides.

SEA runs through November 24th at the DC Arts Center. Find tickets here.

Run time: Approximately 60 minutes, no intermission.

(L to R): Greg Ongao, Sara Barker, Eamon Patrick Walsh and Buck O'Leary in SEA

Photo Credit: Jae Yi Photography

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From This Author Evann Normandin