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A CurtainUp DC Review
The Fever

Do you have any friends that are poor?

Christopher Henley
Christopher Henley
"The path to hell is paved with good intentions." the old saying states and in The Fever, Wallace Shawn shows us just how our own good intentions as a post-industrialized, first-world, super power can actually be attempts to keep the status quo. It's not a comfortable message, especially in these times of Blue States and Red States, but it definitely hits a nerve in our Starbucks-oriented, Wal-Mart discounted, designer-demanding American way of life. Mr. Shawn asks us to look at the choices we make -- on a daily level -- to see how we each are continuing the flow of keeping the poor in the poverty zone and the rich in the insulated levels of power.

Part of Scena Theatre's six-play season, The Fever explores a nameless man's journey as he awakens on a bathroom floor in a nameless poverty-stricken country. Sick and alone, this "everyman" recounts the story of how he has arrived at this particular hotel where an execution is occurring outside his window.

Mr. Shawn's basic premise is: in order to keep the rich wealthy, one must have the poor remain in poverty. It's an interesting and insightful look at how the have's maintain order over the have not's. If we extrapolate it out to our own lives it can have some fairly disturbing ramifications on how we, wherever we are in the wealth spectrum, are "maintained" by the power elite. While not the easiest play to watch, and while it could be trimmed by about 20 minutes, it is still a thought-provoking piece of theatre that should be highly recommended. Not least of all is the one-man production's tour de force performance by Christopher Henley.

Director Robert McNamara has Mr. Henley twisting, turning, falling, crying, and then suddenly turning to give innocent glances at the audience as yet another scathingly pithy line about human decency is uttered. The two have created a character that is part Peace Corp volunteer and part Martha Stewart Omni Living Media. With a subtle and very dry humor that filters through the whole production, the juxtaposition is jarring as Mr. Henley comments on the state of the poor while returning to recount his own opulent dinner parties. The whole piece hits uncomfortably close to home.

Continuing the darker elements of the play, the set is a simple, cell-like piece with black walls, a light-up toilet, and one bare light bulb hanging down to illuminate the hotel room. Marianne Meadows' lighting design fluctuates between deep foreboding shadows and glaringly bright and fluorescent.

Mr. Henley is a joy to watch as he maneuvers an emotionally intense and heavily verbal piece. When he states "What did I think I was? This week's radical guerrilla?" he's roasting all of us and the small risks we take towards social justice. Meanwhile, the next minute he's saying "There's a reason I have money to give away and I'm not going to give it all away. I've earned the money and I can spend it any way I want - this is a belief our lives are based on." Again, he's shooting a verbal arrow right at our own ideas on charity and self-absorption. There is a slow dawning of guilt as the character becomes more fully aware of how individual choices can continue a pattern of disempowerment within whole groups of people, noting "Nothing is changing in the life of the poor." or "The rich make a choice each day. We all make a choice." or "I don't actually deserve 1,000 times more than the beggar." But even with this knowledge, the character at the same time realizes his own personal limitations with "It's a wonderful feeling to be rich in a poor take a cab through poor neighborhoods." By the end, sitting in his small hotel room, the character makes the observation "The life I live is irredeemably corrupt. It has no justification."

Not exactly a holiday spirited play, but one that has an important message about understanding, compassion, and self-examination of our own motivations. All very much relevant this time of the year and at this time in our nation's history.

The Fever
by Wallace Shawn
Directed by Robert McNamara
with Christopher Henley
Costume Design: Alisa Mandel
Lighting Designer: Marianne Meadows
Sound Design: Robert McNamara
Sound Consultant: David Crandall
Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes with no intermission
A production of Scena Theatre
Warehouse Theater, 1021 Seventh Street, NW
Telephone: 703-684-7990
WED - SUN @7:30, SUN @3;$20-$25
Opening 11/23/04, closing 01/09/05
Reviewed by Rich See based on 12/19/04 performance
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