Facing the sea can be frightening if one is out in open water with no land in sight. In I Am The Wind, by Jon Fosse, translated by Simon Stephens, two men on a boat are sailing far away from the safety, security and company of others. How did they decide upon this journey together? What is their relationship? What are their intentions?
The Norwegian playwright’s existential play, directed by Paul Takacs, produced by The Shop and currently at 59E59 Theaters is as indistinct as fog and as amorphous as a shadow in twilight. When you are sure you have been enlightened, the playwright shifts the action in another direction and blows you on a haphazard course toward the unexpected. You end up without being sure you’re clear about a theme or issue or detail of characterization, let alone the storyline.
Perhaps that’s the play’s beauty. It is like wind. Though you can’t physically see it, it is palpable. You can feel it and you can hear its ferocity banging up against objects that are not securely bound. So the best way to apprehend Fosse’s work is on an emotional level. Once that is understood, the minimalistic set (a grey pleated backdrop) and the thick black rope which the actors use as a prop representing food and other items are all that is necessary for watching the unfolding action. Sitting back you will let go and not resist. You will trust Fosse to engage your feelings as you go on a journey with these fellows (simply called The One and The Other) who are sailing out to sea. The sea then becomes a metaphor. It is a vast, watery expanse that turns into an ocean of questions about life, about the meaning of words, about understanding self and about divining one’s relationship to others. And at the conclusion there is duality of result: an answer, and more questions.
When the play begins, The Other (Louis Butelli) sits on the floor, arms clasped around The One (Christopher Tierney) who lies back against him, legs stretched out. The One is obviously drenched and is being protected and safeguarded by The Other. To what purpose we are unsure. Has The Other pulled The One out of the water having saved him from drowning? Are they lovers, or friends? There are no clues, only that they are on a boat and The One is miserable and having a bad time of sorting things out. What things? We don’t know. However, we do know that The Other is solicitous and attempts to draw out his companion and comfort him.
It doesn’t seem to be working. Nothing is clear, not their comprehension of each other, not the words they use, not their connection to their words or their feelings about their condition. The only thing that seems to create forward momentum is when The Other accepts where The One (it is his boat) wants to go and what he wants to do.
First, The One wants to sail far away to the islands. The Other accepts the plan. But when The One forces him to moor the boat, The Other becomes stressed and afraid. He is a neophyte. Nevertheless, to satisfy The One, The Other leaps over the boat railing, grabs the rope, pulls the boat in and moors it with great exertion. Butelli and Tierney do a great job of using the rope to secure the imaginary sailboat to an imaginary set of rocks on an imaginary island. The movement, by Katherine Helen Fisher, is well choreographed.
After the men eat, The Other again satisfies his companion by agreeing to unmoor the sailboat. After The One’s encouragement and assurance that the journey is important, The Other reluctantly agrees they should sail out to the open sea. We feel that it is only The Other’s acquiescence that gives The One some kind of solace. The One paints a hopeful vision of the journey to come out on the open sea to persuade The Other, who is distressed about the plan.
In their undefined relationship a picture begins to emerge. The Other is the questioner and prompter. However, The One gives him few abiding, solid responses. The more The Other attempts to help and follows The One’s instructions (mooring the boat, launching out to the open sea), the more The Other is made frantic and afraid. Clearly, these two are not on the same page. The One leads, The Other follows. The hope and joy of The One, is the curse and sorrow of The Other.
When The One convinces The Other to sail out to sea for the interesting travel, we feel we are moving toward some kind of closure for both men. But as the journey continues, The Other becomes more frightened and weak. The One becomes more determined and assured. For our part we experience a sense of foreboding and an intimation of an abrupt ending. Why is The One gaining definition and The Other a bundle of uncertainty and shadows?
It is a chilling conclusion we come to and we are right, but we are no closer to understanding who these individuals represent or what they symbolize to the playwright, especially when The One clarifies, answers and delineates himself at the play’s conclusion. Ironically, he has become invisible to The Other who sails out to the open sea alone. But as the wind – The One says he’s the wind – The One can be heard and felt, then eventually he disappears.
Fosse’s play has the flavor of Kierkegaardian existentialism. The actors brilliantly perform it in the moment, making the final result perplexing and alarming. Conclusions are uncertain and that is what Fosse is most probably attempting because in this play as in life, we are forced to make the meanings, define ourselves and create our own world view, accepting the responsibility of that freedom. However, the more we may try, the greater our uncertainty.
For some that is the fun of it. With the unknown, there are immense possibilities. Indeed, anything is possible. Fosse has given us enough to “play” as he teases and cajoles us. As for the character of The Other, the questions lead to more questions with the satisfaction of no deterministic answers. Only The One has the final answer. The One deals with his problems for the purpose of closure. And though he shares what he is and has become (“I am the wind”) and though the meaning is opaque, the wind he creates jolts us from complacency into wonder.