(“I Am The Wind” plays through February 7 at the Adeline Studios Firehouse Art Collective in Berkeley.)
The magnificent and memorable “I Am The Wind” is not typical theatrical fare for Americans. In fact, many audiences will have difficulty understanding it as a “play”, and might prefer to think of it as “performance art”. It is poetry rather than narrative, playing directly on the emotions without benefit of story, relying on visual metaphor, and using language in ways more reminiscent of Gertrude Stein than William Shakespeare. It is philosophical, theological, poetic, esoteric, hermetic, and almost completely devoid of the naturalism which so pervades our theatrical experience that many theater goers don’t even realize a viable alternative exists.
But there is an alternative, and Norwegian playwright Jon Fosse is among its most successful practitioners. Although most English speaking audiences are unfamiliar with his work, Fosse’s plays are widely produced in non-English speaking Europe, where he has won numerous major awards, and is rightly considered a genius.
Fosse, a poet and a novelist, was not initially drawn to the theater. In a 2011 interview in the British daily paper, The Independent, he stated: “I thought [the theater] was stupid in its conventionality — as it often still is. The audience behaves in a conventional way, the play is conventional. It’s not art, it’s just conventionality.”
Audiences attending “I Am The Wind” will not find it even remotely conventional. At Adeline Studios they will find no stage, no lobby, no auditorium, and no theater in the usual sense of the word. The building is an old, small and rather decrepit warehouse. There are holes in the wall. The floor is of wooden planks. A couple of light bulbs hang on wires from hooks in the ceiling, and on the floor are some industrial spotlights of the sort you would expect to find lighting a construction site after dark rather than a stage. It feels more like a squat than a playhouse. Although there are a handful of conventional chairs available for less limber folk, most of the audience sits on the floor. On one end of the room is a minimalist set, nothing but a ladder and one of the lightbulbs. At some point, a length of rope is added, and there is a scene in which the actors sit down at a table and partake of a meal in the midst of the audience. (A communion, perhaps?)
The characters are unnamed. The program refers to them as “The One” and “The Other”. Their relationship is never clarified — they could be strangers, sisters, lovers, mother and daughter, we just don’t know. What we do know is that they are in a boat at sea. The one (or is it the other?) seems relatively self-assured, a confident sailor. The other (or is it the one?) is fearful, a bit disoriented, ill-at-ease. Their words are more soundscape than story, offering themes of heaviness, alienation, loss, sailing, spirit, wind. Wind, with its connection to sailing, is perhaps the most central metaphor — as indicated by the title. There is a clue in knowing that the playwright is an adult convert to Catholicism — wind, in Judeo-Christian tradition, refers to the Holy Spirit.
Perhaps the two women are two aspects of the same person, or two ways of being in the world. Perhaps they embody our conflicting drives for both life and death.
The poetic language washes over us, moving, shaking, carrying us to unexpected places, never easily understood. There are other sounds, evoking the sea, and, at one point, an actress uses an accordion to play hymn-like music.
A swinging lightbulb creates danger and the sense of a rocking boat.
It is difficult to describe an event like this: it is poetry, not story, so there is nothing to retell. I can try to evoke something of the experience, but, really, you have to be there. A poem is a poem is a poem.
After the hour and a half performance, I found it difficult to leave the theatre, as did other audience members. We stood around, quietly basking in one another’s company, knowing we had shared something rather extraordinary. One audience member was deeply moved, crying, perhaps over a private grief. Several friends sat to comfort her. I have no idea what moved her so, but I understand that many will be strangely moved by this work, as was I.
If you find this review at all intriguing, you probably should go see this play.
For further information, click here.
“I Am The Wind” by Jon Fosse, translated by Simon Stephens, a west coast premiere produced by Do It Live Productions. Director: Will Hand.
The One: Ari Rampy. The Other: Amy Nowak.