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The Fever is Marxism 101--for the well-to-do

Review by Brian Jones | February 23, 2007 | Page 13

The Fever, written and performed by Wallace Shawn. Showing in New York at the New Group at Theater Row through March 3.

WALLACE SHAWN'S one-man show, The Fever, tells the story of the political awakening of an unnamed, comfortable, upper-middle class man ("The Traveler") upon returning from a small, poor, unnamed country where there has just been a revolution.

This trip, and The Traveler's reaction to it, aside from the rise and fall of lighting, and the faint wisps of sound effect, is evoked entirely by Shawn's voice, and by his long, lyrical, looping prose. Once seated, The Traveler hardly leaves his leather chair, which, like the play itself, is pointed directly at the audience.

Shawn has an affinity for the 20th century German poet, playwright and radical Bertolt Brecht (he recently produced his own translation of Three Penny Opera), but many of Brecht's radical theatrical devices--reminding the audience that they are in fact watching a play, exposing the "tricks" of theatrical illusions, and so on, have become so commonplace that they often hardly seem radical anymore.

Fever audiences are treated to a casual, but interesting twist on Brechtian theater--when the house opens for seating, Shawn is already on stage, and everyone is invited to join him there and chat over flutes of champagne.

Shortly afterwards, as we take our seats, and the last of the champagne glasses are collected, we watch Shawn onstage being fitted with wireless microphones--the sort of business that is usually taken care of backstage happens quite casually onstage.

Shawn chats with someone in the audience until the last person is seated, and just as nonchalantly, the show begins--with a hilarious monologue about all of the strange rituals that usually accompany the beginning of plays, and the strangeness of plays themselves. "Why do we like watching people pretend to be other people?" he asks us, and wonders himself.

And then Shawn steps onto the small slice of a set that evokes a well-appointed, tastefully decorated, comfortable upper-middle class home, takes his seat in a sturdy, leather chair, and pretends to be The Traveler for most of the next 90 minutes.

But Shawn doesn't have to travel far to inhabit his character, since they both seem to be making the same political journey--from an illusion that the world is fundamentally alright, to the creeping sense that it is fundamentally not alright. While this political evolution is triggered by a trip overseas, The Traveler's mind begins reworking the way he looks at everything at home.

A copy of Marx's Capital is anonymously left on his doorstep, and after reading it, he begins to see commodity fetishism everywhere! The Traveler realizes that prices are not intrinsic to the things we buy, such as coats, but are an expression of "the history of a coat, and of all of the people who worked on it, transported it and sold it."

This new awareness, ("the fever"), leaves him with a "horrible, rotting lovelessness," a feeling that everything around him is a lie, that his friends and their polite conversation over drinks at dinner parties is superficial and meaningless, and worst of all, that perhaps deep down he is not a good a person, and perhaps the world is not fundamentally just.

"I don't have money like I have two feet," The Traveler declares, as he begins to interrogate the roots of inequality. He wants to think that he worked for his money, but wonders why some work is better paid than others.

"The condition of the chambermaid is not temporary," he fumes, "it's not that she will clean my room today and I will clean her room tomorrow. A life sentence has been passed on her."

He comes to understand that what he has was stolen from poorer people. Shawn (or is it The Traveler?) argues that if the wealthy believe that they deserve what they have, they have to believe that the poor are getting what they actually deserve.

The Traveler has seen other poor countries, as well, where there were no revolutions, and is haunted by the violence and repression people face for trying to challenge the powers that be. Shawn steps out of character (or does he?) to make the point that we must have morality because some of the poor won't wait for things to get better.

"We must teach them never to try to seize power for themselves. The poor must understand that idealists who promise something better will always deliver something worse." Shawn knows his audience. He knows that they are paying over $50 per ticket to watch him, and he delivers an unforgettable, if devastating, theater experience.

He has written a play that exposes the blood and suffering that underwrites their comfort-soaked lives, and after 90 minutes, doesn't provide a catharsis, a happy ending, or anything else that might reassure. You could call it Marxism 101 for the well-to-do.

How does he get away with it? The show is packed with what makes people like to watch people pretend to be other people--Shawn's wit, humor, and intelligence--all well worth the price of admission. And there's no doubt the free champagne is more than a Brechtian gimmick--it's Shawn's teaspoon of sugar to help the medicine go down.

But Shawn, the sly radical, wants to implicate the audience as well. What better way than to start the show with drinks and polite conversation?

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