It’s that time of year again – flu season. And, from all accounts, this year is shaping up to be particularly brutal. People are doing everything they can to avoid the flu’s coughing, fatigue, and fever. Equally brutal but worth running toward is any production of Wallace Shawn’s The Fever. Unfortunately, the current production at La Mama, while valiant in its attempt, doesn’t fully capture that brutality. In fact, it’s the fully capable and emotional performance by French-Romanian actress Simona Maicanescu that ultimately undercuts Shawn’s text and robs it of the impact it should leave on the audience.
The Fever, a monologue-play originally performed by Shawn – and again peformed by him in a 2007 revival, which I was fortunate enough to see – is an indictment of oblivious Western consumer culture. If that seems somewhat obvious and well worn, Shawn would agree. The current production quotes him as saying:
The Fever is an attempt to state the obvious so that the obvious can finally be seen. In my view, injustice, and particularly economical injustice, still is the root cause of the rage which everyone feels all around them. The injustice is brutal, it’s astounding, and it’s everywhere, and it’s not hidden at all, but it’s still so upsetting that even the most enlightened of us can only glimpse it for moments at a time.
As he writes in a note for the play, Shawn wrote it “with the idea in mind that it could be performed in homes and apartments, for groups of ten to twelve.” Given the fact that Shawn himself has performed it in a theater, this is obviously not a requirement. What he’s getting at with this note is the intention that, wherever it is performed and by whomever it is performed, The Fever should have an intimacy and an engagement with its audience that is almost frightening for being so close. Intimacy is a tricky thing though. Why is it that he could capture it in a large, Off-Broadway theater, but Maicanescu and her director, Swedish playwright Lars Noren, couldn’t quite manage in a small downtown space?
Part of the answer may have to do with Noren’s use of the space. Throughout the 85-minute piece, Maicanescu stands in a small, square box in front of a screen. The light changes around her, a larger box forms underneath her at one point, but she does not move from her spot. The impression we’re left with is that she’s sort of floating in a void, perhaps between her old conception of herself and her new one. This is certainly a valid idea given the show’s content, but the play itself is so specific that the space’s lack of specificity undercuts it. The best thing a director could do for this play is create a space in which listening is not only comfortable and possible, but demanded. Instead, Noren disorients and lulls us.
The other part of the answer lies in the tone of the performance. The play is titled as it is because the whole thing is the ramblings of a man (or woman) in the throes of an illness while traveling in a foreign country. But the language is anything but feverish. It is reasoned and steady – a person who thought she knew who she was and what she believed calmly trying to piece together why she doesn’t feel that way anymore and what is to be done about it. Whereas Mr. Shawn maintained this sense of intellectual control in his performance, Ms. Maicanescu seems to be playing the opposite. She is playing the fever, and the play is not about the fever but about what it brings about.
Granted, she’s quite convincing – seemingly forgetting names for a moment, trailing off into her thoughts, stifling herself from screaming too loudly. She would be wonderful as Blanch in Streetcar, but the choices she and Mr. Noren make here doesn’t serve the play. In order for the text to have the intended effect, the audience has to sense a certain control and dynamism from the narrator. What we get in this production is a woman who is embarrassed and confused, overcome by her feelings, rather than a clear, determined mind reasoning through some fairly disturbing conclusions.
The text for this production is apparently an “adaptation” by Maicanescu and Noren based on Shawn’s original text and his 2007 rewrite. Listening to the play, it is certainly clear that it has changed somewhat. Even though a side-by-side comparison isn’t possible at the moment, one noticeable difference is the first line. After wandering down through the house smiling at the audience nervously, Maicanescu stands onstage and says, “Do you know…?” As written in the original text, the first line is “I’m traveling – .” This is somewhat telling. It’s the difference between someone having an outward and an inward focus. Maicanescu and Noren are confronting us. Shawn is confronting us by confronting himself. That, I think, is the more compelling – and brutal – choice.