Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Wallace Shawn's The Fever

Although I can't say I exactly like this cold weather, it does make me a whole lot less nervous.

Last night I saw Wallace Shawn perform his 1990 one-man show, The Fever, produced by The New Group at the Acorn Theatre on Theatre Row. This is the second time I've seen Mr. Shawn's piece performed; the first time was Bryan K. Brown's rendition at the UnConvention (which I reviewed here and put on my "Top Ten" list for 2004).

In The Fever, Mr. Shawn plays "The Traveler," an unnamed upper-middle-class cosmopolitan narrator awakening in a hotel room in war-torn country with a terrible fever, being forced to confront his life of privilege in contrast to his current surroundings (where people are being tortured and murdered on a daily basis). Being in this poor and unstable country, away from his civilized New York niche, the narrator's love for beauty, art and luxury disintegrates from the realization that his life of luxury has been brought about at the expense of the impoverished.

Mr. Shawn had originally performed this piece in apartments for groups of a dozen or so friends and acquaintances and "toured" the piece to other apartments of friends of friends (and eventually friends of friends of friends) in order to strip away the illusory ingredients of theatre and talk frankly to his audience base and social class ("the privileged"). This production seemed to be set up to go back to those roots (despite being in a 199-seat theatre). When the house opened, the audience was invited to get up on the stage and have some champagne and chat with Mr. Shawn, who was pleasantly greeting the attendees.

(No, I didn't talk with him. When the house opened, he was damn near already mobbed. I stood about four feet away, and nodded hello to him, and he nodded politely back - along with the huge mob surrounding him - but I really couldn't have gotten his attention unless I flailed my hands around and went, "HEY! HEY WALLY! OVER HERE! HEY! MY NAME'S JAMES! YOU ROCK! HEY!!!" That, I think, would be tacky, even for me.)

After the audience members finished drinking the champagne and examining the set, the audience settled into their (our) seats and he chatted with the audience, saying he was stalling to let the technicians get the sound and light levels right. The set itself resembled a portion of a nicely furnished upper-middle-class New York apartment (not unlike the ones he had performed in back in the early '90s). When he said he and the technicians were ready, he sat down in the chair placed center-stage, the lights went out and he started the piece.

The show was mainly an auditory experience. There's virtually no blocking in this production, as Mr. Shawn spends 90% of the play seated in his chair center-stage. From time to time, the house lights would turn on, attempting to give the "we're all in a giant living room listening to someone speaking," feel.

Although I'm not sure if you can fully-recreate the experience of being in a living room in a 199-seat theatre with a group of total strangers (that old saying, "You can't go home again," ringing particularly true), this production does bring an immediacy and intimacy that I imagine is not often present in a space like The Acorn (though I'm speculating; I've certainly been to spaces like The Acorn, but I had never been in the space itself before last night).

Having now seen The Fever staged twice, I've noticed how less confrontational it feels to watch rather than read. My initial experience reading the script was caustic and scathing, perhaps because in both productions (in Mr. Brown's rendition and Mr. Shawn's) the most damning lines were directed inward rather than outward. For example, reading the following passage...

"No, I'm trying to tell you that people hate you. I'm trying to explain to you about the people who hate you.

"Why do you think that they would all love you? And what do you think they would love about you? What are you? There's no charm in you, there's nothing graceful, nothing that yields. You're simply a relentless, unbearable fanatic. Yes, the commando who crawls all night through the mud is much much less of a fanatic than you. Look at yourself. Look. You walk so stiffly into your kitchen each morning, you approach your cupboard. And you open it, and reach for the coffee, the coffee you expect to find on its shelf. And it has to be there! And if one morning it isn't there - oh, the hysteria! - the entire world will have to pay! At the very thought of the unexpected, the unexpected deprivation, you begin to twitch, to panic, to pant. That shortness of breath! Listen to your voice on the telephone, listen to the tone that comes into your voice when you talk to one of your very close friends and you talk about your life and you use those expressions - "what I need to live on?" - "the amount I need just in order to live?" Are you cute then? Are you funny then? ... Without the money, your face would become the face of a rat, your hands would be paws - sharp, nimble, ready to scratch, ready to tear. "

...feels as if the words are directed toward the reader. But in both productions I've seen, the actors directed these lines towards themselves (Mr. Shawn more so than Mr. Brown, if memory serves). Although the lines are the same and the meaning of said lines is still there, the play as staged is much more sad and mournful than biting.

And it is more mournful than biting, because Mr. Shawn is writing just as much about himself as he is about his colleagues. The unnamed narrator ultimately feels no sense of superior over his privileged peers (i.e., us). He's just as guilty of oppressing the impoverished as we are.

If you've never read nor seen The Fever, I suggest you do. I remember first reading the play 10 years ago in college and was blown away by it. It was great (for me) to hear Mr. Shawn recite the text himself (and it's pretty obvious hearing him deliver the lines that it was written to specifically cater to his distinct speech patterns and cadences).

The Fever is currently in previews. It officially opens January 29 and runs until March 3. You can get tickets here.

A Child of Privilege,

James "Spoiled Brat" Comtois

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