Wallace Shawn wrote his monologue The Fever during a period of terrific socio-economic inequalities in North America, otherwise known as the Reagan Era: on the one hand, an explosively bullish stock market and its new class of investor millionaires in the US; on the other, bloody revolutionary movements and widespread human rights abuses in Nicaragua and El Salvador (in which the US government was hardly an impartial observer). The play grapples with these contrasts in a looping and roaming reflection – alternately caustic, wry, and, yes, fever- and guilt-stricken – by a wealthy Traveler to an unnamed, undeveloped country, on how to live in good conscience a life among the haves when so many others have not.
Just as a new page of Wall Street greed and underclass woes was starting to be written in 2007, Shawn retooled his text to reflect the harsher, crasser face of Rich v. Poor in the growing, global financial crisis. Since the piece was originally written to be performed in private homes as a consciousness-raising exercise, Shawn took his play to the people that same year, in a production The New York Times criticized as serving up a dated and “reductive” wet noodle of diffuse guilt resulting in “moral indigestion”.
Such a damning assessment could hardly be made of the current European-born version of The Fever now running at La MaMa. There are a couple of reasons for this.
An obvious one owes to the world we live in circa 2013. On the subject of economic inequality, one need look no further than the Wall Street bailout and the subprime mortgage scandal. In the wake of the Occupy movement, the war Shawn saw being fought across international borders between the silver-spooners of the Northern Hemisphere and the disenfranchised of everywhere else, takes on a different cast. Then there’s Hurricane Sandy, which uncovered – for all the world to see – a layer of entrenched poverty that struggles on the margins of Manhattan and puts that city’s wealth to shame. Shawn’s privileged narrator has to travel to a banana republic to find shocking misery, but Sandy proved that it exists right in his backyard. The Strauss-Kahn Sofitel incident also comes to mind as a telling microcosm of the disparities Shawn examines. It’s now entirely possible that only a hotel suite stands between the Traveler’s “chambermaid” and Nafissatou Diallo. The most basic analysis of the international banking system could be summed up by the Traveler: “Nothing is changing in the life of the poor. There is no change. Gradual change is not happening. It’s not going to happen.”
However, a more telling reason for the punch this Fever packs comes from the team behind this production, conceived and premiered in France by Swedish playwright and director Lars Norén and starring the Romanian actress Simona Maicanescu. Norén is Sweden’s leading contemporary playwright – the author of raw, realist family studies and sociopolitical dramas, and an important figure in contemporary French theatre. The team he forms with Maicanescu, who trained in her homeland during the hated Communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu before building her career on the Paris stage, brings together both sides of Shawn’s economic coin. Maicanescu underscores this point in her program notes, entitled “Terminal 2F”, which is a reference to the section of Paris’s Roissy-Charles de Gaulle Airport that serves departures to locales challenged by enormous economic disparities: India, China, the tax-haven Seychelles, oil-rich Angola, and, of course, her native Romania. One feels strongly that Maicanescu could say a thing or two of her own about the commodity fetishism that so fascinates Shawn.
You might expect Norén to build on those real-world experiences by situating the Traveler in a recognizable time and place, but that would underestimate his reading of the issues and his respect for the text. On the contrary, Norén astutely removes the action from the setting it describes, to let the invisible, immediate context speak volumes while also easing the moral burden on the audience. He does this through an abstract language that lends the Traveler’s dilemma a touch of mystery and even a certain glow. The warm, minimalist set is created mostly by Jean Poisson’s lighting, projected onto a screen that pulsates alternately in deep blue, green, purple and orange, lending moods to match those of the Traveler and the events she evokes. At the same time, an atmosphere of uncertainty and even paralysis is created, as she is boxed in by ever smaller frames of light.
But the real energy of the play is provided by Maicanescu’s performance. If Shawn’s protagonist shivers pitifully with dysentery in a hotel bathroom while longing – abjectly, he believes – for his privileged existence back home, Maicanescu takes us as far from this ambiguous character as a life-seasoned Romanian actress could. Even before the opening lines, she throws us for a loop, entering the theatre from behind the seats, wobbling slightly on her stilettos and carrying a bottle of gin, perhaps (ordinary water, as it turns out), while mumbling, making playful gestures with the ribbons of her cocktail dress and sly eye-contact with the audience. At times, the impression is one of a slightly mad, fairly inebriated socialite; at others, it is of a benevolently strict, finger-wagging school marm. Maicanescu holds our attention for 85 minutes of almost motionless delivery, punctuated by a playful arsenal of facial expressions that go from fear to anger to confusion to irony to genuine wonder, as well as the careful vocabulary of her awkwardly posed hands and arms.
If it was always possible to locate, almost to the street address, Shawn’s Manhattanite traveler, not so with Maicanescu’s: her accent and fragility stump us completely, and in so doing throw the text off its familiar rails and into uncharted territory. The result is fascinating, intriguing, and, despite what the Traveler may think about the moral good of art in a world that is all wrong, aesthetically satisfying.
In 2013, the ear we turn to the questions posed by The Fever may be world-weary. Is wealth immoral? Today, most people would agree that, judging from the example of philanthropists like Bill and Melinda Gates and initiatives like the Clinton Global Initiative, right-minded millionaires can make the world a better place. They probably have been convinced, too, by ongoing humanitarian disasters like the one in Haiti, that giving away everything right down to your shirt will never improve the life of someone who needs empowerment more than aid. So what are you and I to do?
Norén writes in the program notes that theatre “teaches us more about our duties than our rights”, so perhaps a night out at La MaMa is as good a place as any to start thinking about the moral fabric of our global village. In fact, judging from the merits of this intelligent, beautiful and cruelly humorous production, it’s an excellent place to begin.