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By MARK BLANKENSHIP
Like all good abstract plays, Jon Fosse's I Am the Wind is real and unreal at the same time.
On one hand, this 50-minute show is the story of two friends sailing together in a tiny boat. One of them isn't sure he wants to go on living, and the other is afraid to go through life alone. As they navigate the water---sometimes rough, sometimes smooth---they try their best to explain their perspectives on the world.
But on the other hand, that story is entirely beside the point.
Fosse's script---which is translated from Norwegian by the British playwright Simon Stephens---glances against concrete details before spinning off to deeper meditations, using silence, repetition, and simple phrases to create a linguistic rhythm that ebbs and flows like the ocean. The writing uses both sound and meaning to suggest a sense of the unknowable things that impact our lives.
In the play's New York debut, running through Sunday at 59E59's Theatre C in a production from The Shop, director Paul Takacs reflects this ambiguity by placing the show in a mostly empty room. There's nothing in the space but a rumpled gray curtain and a thick black rope, which means the actors---Christopher Tierney plays The One (who is sad) and Louis Butelli plays The Other (who is frightened)---must suggest the literal and metaphorical ideas almost by themselves. If their performances aren't carefully calibrated, then one side of the show could be lost.
"There's very little margin for us to lose track of things," says Tierney. "It's all hinging on these fine lines of connection---between the two of us and between us and the audience---and if we sever it for even a second, then everything is gone."
Along with their words, the actors' bodies are especially indelible. Created by Katherine Helen Fisher and Jennifer Edwards, the show's movement is not quite dance, but it pushes us to a heightened world. When the men turn to face each other, for instance, they might hold a pivoted position for a moment longer than we expect, or when they separate in anger, they might slow their tempo just enough to let us focus on how they're walking.
It takes a lot of work to make this choreography feel both relatable and symbolic. "I want to find the purpose of each movement and make it honest for myself, and that hasn't always been easy," says Tierney. "There were things early on where I would accentuate every word with my hands or something like that, and it felt very put on. But it's a matter of finding that sweet spot" between too much and not enough.
Sometimes, the actors also have to fight their impulses. As Butelli recalls, "In early rehearsals, both of us had the instinct to get close to each other and hang on to each other out of fear or whatever. But that becomes very static. And as soon as you're that close to each other, you have nowhere to go. Ironically, 'close together' is much less tense than 'far apart.' So when we do come together, it has to be a necessary moment."
Even when they're moving with formalized precision, then, Tierney and Butelli are thinking about dramatic tension and stakes. "The show is very much about the ability and the inability of people to connect and communicate," Butelli says. "And our movement reflects that. Whether our movement reflects each other or it's at odds with each other, it adds a component to the language."
Both men stress that the patrons---who are very, very close to them in Theatre C---also influence the flavor of each night's performance. "It's completely different every night," Butelli says. "The pace changes. There's a laugh that wasn't there before." He recalls that one night during a reconciliation scene, he sat next to Tierney and rested his head on his shoulder. "I heard a reaction to me leaning on him---some kind of sigh or "ohhh"---and feeling that circuit connect between us and the audience propelled us to the next moment."
To that end, the audience has taught Tierney that even though the show has heavy themes, he still needs to find moment of lightness. "I've realized, 'Who wants to watch an hour of someone brooding?' We've found that even in the darkest moments, there can be levity or reminiscence. That's what can be so tragic about these things, really, that there can be this light. And to make this thing watchable, we have to showcase that."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo by Cherylynn Tsushima