Appropriate presents for a woman on her 60th birthday might include a bracelet, a blouse, or a fine bottle of wine. But Norwegian playwright Jon Fosse has peculiar ideas about gift-giving. In Sa Ka La—his latest play, offered by local company Oslo Elsewhere—he bestows on the birthday girl a debilitating stroke, which arrives just hours before her party. While her sons-in-law and a close friend sit by the balloons and cake, her grown children gather by her hospital bed as a nurse says matter-of-factly: “Yah/there’s too much damage/and/yah, like the doctor said/yah, it’s a severe stroke.” A jaunty round of “She’s a Jolly Good Fellow,” this isn’t.
But if you’ve attended Fosse’s other plays or dipped into his fiction—a recent novel bears the title Melancholia—you’d find Sa Ka La much more cheerful than the ousual gloom. People make jokes—even a boob joke—and other people laugh. Tears and wailing ensue, sure, yet no one resorts to suicide. (Well, OK, there’s a little ambiguity surrounding the mother’s death.)
Fosse’s language is simple, elliptical, somehow distant. It appears on the page as a series of terse phrases. In her translation, Sarah Cameron Sunde uses so many one-syllable words that it often sounds, as in Ola’s description of his mother’s death, like a bizarre children’s primer: “There was a light/an ordinary light/and then a kind of light that couldn’t be seen/it could be seen/and not be seen at the same time/and it was yellow/yellow and white at the same time.” Ah, Dr. Seuss meets Neo-Platonism.
In a recent interview, Fosse said: “What I am writing about is the relationship between people, the spaces between them. And, in a way, what I write about are the empty spaces.” Sunde, who also directs, seems to have taken this too much to heart. While she has the excellent idea to locate the party and the hospital room in the same playing area, she allows too much physical distance between the actors and often has them speak directly facing the audience, instead of addressing one another. This only emphasizes the abstractedness of Fosse’s language, letting the dramatic content slip away. If she’d let the characters better engage one another, Sa Ka La might have been something to celebrate.