by John Stoltenberg

DC audiences last saw Olwen Fouéré in Yaël Farber’s Salomé at the Shakespeare Theatre Company playing the narrator character Nameless Woman. With her striking long white hair, deep vocal register, and beautifully rawboned face, Fouéré gave an indelibly haunting performance, the kind you could not take your eyes off, which in that lavish production is saying something.

Last night Fouéré returned to DC, this time to the Family Theater at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, in riverrun, a solo piece Fouéré adapted from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Alone on a big black-box stage with but a floor mic for company, Fouéré commanded not only our visual field but the aural receptors of our brains, in a performance so eerily transfixing it seemed shamanistic.

The central conceit of the script, and the meandering motif of the piece, is that a nameless narrator is speaking to us in “the voice of the river”—specifically the River Liffey (Irish for “life”), which flows through Dublin on its way to the ocean and makes an appearance as a kind of character in Joyce’s famously cryptic novel. She (or it) communicates more in sound and movement than in literal sense, of which there is virtually none. To be sure, we can detect syllables and some semblance of English syntax in her speech, but there is an aspect of our language-processing minds that we had best give a rest—just as Joyce, if he had composed his intense linguistic shtick on a computer, would have had to disable grammar- and spellcheck.

The black stage floor is strewn with white granules that light up in Stephan Dodd’s brilliant lighting design like a bluish spill of sea foam. When Fouéré steps into it barefoot, you expect it to splash. Throughout runs a rumbling undercurrent, an undulating soundscape of surf and crashing waves, designed and composed by Alma Kelliher, that mystically syncs with the inflections of Fouéré’s voice. Fouéré wears an unassuming, loose-fitting outfit, designed by Monica Frawley, and at one point she takes off the jacket and whirls it and whirls it, becoming before our eyes even more hypnotic than before. No one can shape a solo show this sublime alone, and in her co-director Kellie Hughes, Fouéré has had insightful assistance.

Myself I would love to see riverrun performed with surtitling, so I could simultaneously watch Joyce’s wordplay, which is trippy to read. But if you let go of all expectation of understanding Fouéré’s performance verbatim—abandoning all hope of comprehending the way you would naturally try very hard to do if someone addresses you in a language you think you know—what you are left with is a current of raw emotion in vocal and physical expression that washes over you and immerses you and seems to sweep you out to sea. The performance can be bracing or bewildering depending on how you let it engage you, but there is no denying the transcendent, transporting trance state that Fouéré enters unconditionally and invites us to meet her in.

Running Time: About 70 minutes with no intermission.

riverrun plays through today, Thursday, May 26, 2016, in the Family Theater at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 467-4600, or purchase them online.