It’s been said that one of the defining characteristics of punk rock – besides the anti-establishment attitude and DIY ethos – is the urge to transcend the barrier between the performer up on stage and the traditionally passive spectator. In that sense, there are few artists in today’s theater more punk than Wallace Shawn – which may come as a surprise to those who know him as “that guy” from such movies as The Princess Bride and Clueless.
In a mesmerizing performance of his solo play The Fever, Shawn deftly dismantles the stuffy facade of theatrical convention while masterminding a sublime experience that just happens to occur in a theater. It’s entirely fitting, as the play was originally performed by the author for small groups of friends in various New York apartments. (And Shawn’s unforgettable production of his play The Designated Mourner was produced in a decaying Wall Street gentlemen’s club in 2000.)
Shawn’s determination to shake up any audience complacency is evident from the first moment one enters the Acorn Theater, where the crowd is invited up on stage for a cocktail party hosted by Shawn himself. Designer Derek McLane has installed a sliver of a New York intellectual’s apartment that, judging by the way the books and newspaper have been neatly slashed at the set’s edges, seems to have been cleaved off some condo with a scalpel.
After the party, and a droll introduction by Shawn about the oppressiveness of contemporary theatergoing, with its impersonal atmosphere and authoritarian pre-show announcements, all goes dark and Shawn’s voice fills the room with an electric, incantatory power. It’s the beginning of a dizzying, exhilarating journey into the heart of civilization’s darkness, as experienced by one fortunate son incapable of averting his eyes.
It’s difficult to write about The Fever without considering Wallace Shawn the individual. Although the material is not specifically autobiographical, it is deeply personal, and the neighborhood inhabited by the play’s sole character (called simply the Traveler) is the same Upper East Side milieu where Shawn was born and raised. While there’s certainly nothing unusual about a writer drawing from his own experiences, the peculiar particulars of Shawn’s biography – son of famed New Yorker editor William Shawn; radical playwright provocateur by way of Oxford, Harvard and Dalton; Hollywood character actor for anyone’s hire – add an intriguing dimension to his plays’ passionate ideas about class, culture and sex.
The story embedded in The Fever goes something like this: Around the time when neoconservatives were trumpeting the end of history, a moneyed New York intellectual (who tellingly qualifies his financial status as just “a little money”) finds on his doorstep a copy of Marx’s Capital, Volume One. After reading about the “fetishism of commodities”, he finds himself helplessly questioning the history of every material object in his life for two days, unable to keep “pretending we live in a world where coats have no history but just fall down from heaven with the prices marked inside.”
On the third day, he manages to shake it off, but it’s not long after that he encounters a woman at a bus stop wearing a T-shirt with the name of a revolutionary country on it; six months later he shares a taxi with a diplomat from that same country and decides to visit. What he experiences there, and in subsequent travels in other “poor” countries, renders him unable to adjust to life back among his fellow Manhattan aesthetes. So he returns to the unnamed country from the T-shirt, where he falls gravely ill and, in his feverish state, experiences clarity about his own existence that nearly annihilates him.
A synopsis of The Fever’s storyline might suggest 90 minutes of liberal hand-wringing, but that’s merely a regrettable side-effect of trying to describe a play so rich in ideas, insights and humor in traditionally narrative terms. Under the immaculate direction of Scott Elliott, The Fever is paced to constantly surprise us; it blazes along with a riveting tension and suddenly stops on a dime to enable a collective, contemplative breath.
Jennifer Tipton’s lighting design becomes a sort of second character in the play; the light seems to perpetually shift, sometimes abruptly, sometimes gradually, from a devouring darkness that churns around Shawn to a full-house illumination that leaves no spectator the luxury of an anonymous blackout. The play is at its most enthralling when Shawn is isolated under a beam of light that draws the audience toward him with the intimacy of an extreme cinematic close-up.
At times, the performance is so affecting that one begins to feel as helplessly feverish as the Traveler, as his own conscience relentlessly pins him against the jagged wall of his hypocrisy. It’s a grip from which he slickly breaks free, again and again, through an impressive system of rationalizations, until, finally, he’s persuaded by an inner voice to “just let it happen just for this moment, just for tonight, and then tomorrow we’ll go back to lying again, as if it never happened.”
That climactic truth, which the Traveler has been simultaneously seeking and avoiding all this time, would be ill-served by quoting it here. It really ought to be heard from Wallace Shawn in person, at a building at 410 West 42nd Street in Manhattan, through March 3rd, in this foul year of our Lord 2007. It’s a truth that can be discussed after the show with the playwright himself as Shawn, ever the punk, heads straight from the stage to the lobby.