UPDATE: For a chance to hear another early Wallace Shawn play, New Dramatists is offering a reading of Our Late Night (1975) on Monday, 28 January, at 7.00pm, followed by a conversation with “the legendary” Shawn and Francine Volpe. More information here.
The Fever by Wallace Shawn. Directed by Lars Norén; adaptation by Norén and Simona Maicanescu; lighting by Jean Poisson; costume by Chatoon; sound by Sophie Buisson; artistic collaboration with Nelly Bonnafous and Bob Meyer. With Simona Maicanescu as the Traveler. At La MaMa ETC, First Floor Theatre, 74 East 4th Street, 24 January–3 February 2013. Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission. Tickets here. Reviewed at the 24 January performance. More about the play here.
For nearly all of The Fever‘s hour-and-a-half running time, Simona Maicanescu is confined standing in a small chalk-white box drawn on the floor, stage center, all of her body’s energy funnelled through her constantly moving and disciplined hands and face. They become a bodied representation of the cultural delirium charted in Wallace Shawn’s The Fever: expressions of fear, rage, and finally self-loathing, ultimately energy that has nowhere to go except outward to the audience. Once the audience absorbs that caustic energy — well, what then?
It’s a good question; the play itself provides no answer and, to its credit, neither does Lars Norén‘s production, which opened at La MaMa ETC last night and runs through 3 February. Premiered in 1990, performed by Shawn himself first in private apartments and then at the Public Theater, The Fever had a peculiar reception from New York Times critics. “[It's] nothing if not a musty radical-chic stunt destined to be parodied: a brave, sincere and almost entirely humorless assault on the privileged class by one of its card-carrying members,” wrote Frank Rich in 1990; about Shawn’s performance at a 2007 New Group revival of the play, Charles Isherwood smugly and dismissively wrote, “[Shawn] should know that a 90-minute monologue gives too much rein for straying thoughts about dinner plans and how best to catch a taxi after the performance” — something about the play brings out the obtuseness of Times critics, apparently. I note this only because performances of The Fever by actors and actresses other than its writer permit a clearer assessment of the play’s literary and dramatic achievements. (I describe the play in further detail here, where you can find a description of its narrative and structure.)
For this production, Maicanescu and Norén have trimmed the play somewhat, adding to its effectiveness (though the text concludes quite differently from that of the published version), and Maicanescu is a fascinating figure, constantly tense and coiled though wrapped in a fetching and elegant little black dress by costumer Chatoon. Her performance is possessed of a strange childlike innocence, underscoring the hypocrisy of the Traveler’s social position and alleviating somewhat the self-conscious irony inherent in the monologue form itself.
And, as I note above, it is a particularly bodied performance, appropriate to the many references to body in the text of the play: Jean Poisson’s lighting design traps Maicanescu in a variety of confinements: as her awareness of the poor is raised through the first half of the play, a second chalk-white square appears around the first in which the actress stands through the production, a broadening of consciousness; in the final third of the play, a gobo throws the shadow of prison bars across Maicanescu, trapping her in an awareness of her own responsibility for the world. It is otherwise a simple production (though, compared to Shawn’s own spare presentation at the Public in 1990, its scenic elements are as lush as any Franco Zeffirelli opera), elemental and sufficient.
On the other hand — and I would be dishonest if I did not admit my reservations about the play, apart from its very fine text, production, and performance here — I have a nagging feeling that, at the play’s conclusion, we are left with an affirmation of the social and economic determinism that the play itself seems to castigate. Like Mike Daisey’s monologues about globalization, The Fever is the presentation of the emergence of political awareness in American upper-middle-class consumers; it is a consciousness-raising work. But once that consciousness is raised, what is it precisely are we supposed to do with it? Obviously that’s up to us — but, given the United States 25 years after The Fever‘s premiere, the condition of political discourse in America, and the continuing poverty of the world, I wonder if that’s enough. It’s true that art does not provide political solutions — but this is a rationalization as well as a truth (as many rationalizations are, which The Fever admits).
Still, on a cold winter night, The Fever may leave you colder, not at all a bad thing. There is no reason to miss it; tickets are available here.