Review: ‘The Fever’ at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company

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Audience participation can so often be a painful and unwelcome component of a night at the theater, especially if, like myself, you’re prone to minor panic attacks at the thought of being randomly selected to speak or join in on the action.

If this sounds about right to you, then you’ll need to throw caution to the wind should you choose to attend a performance by New York City-based theater company 600 Highwaymen, aptly titled “The Fever,” written and directed by Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone and now playing at Woolly Mammoth, which is perhaps the most appropriate venue DC has to offer for this sort of experimental work.

'The Fever' at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. Photo by Maria Baranova.
‘The Fever’ at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. Photo by Maria Baranova.

To be fair, most of what you might read in a typical review — general plot points, set design elements, performances — would spoil the point of attending. I, for one, went in completely cold, with only a vague understanding that the performers would be collaborating with the audience. The first thing that came to mind is that it would function somewhat like an improv routine.

This is not the case, I’d soon find out. Flushed from a minor sprint from the Chinatown metro stop, I made my way into the theater and onto the stage, where a flock of expectant audience members sat in chairs that formed a closed circle. Small pockets of empty seats scattered throughout had me deliberating smack dab in the middle of the stage where I surveyed the options and the people, while, undoubtedly, the people surveyed me. I sat next to another young woman attending by herself and waited.

The performance begins as surreptitiously as you can imagine, from among the seated ranks of the circle, where two performers initiate what will continue to be the participatory exercise of the show. The next 75 minutes reveal other cast members, though the question of who is and isn’t a “true” audience member will likely remain unsolved even after you leave the theater. Part of this work’s strength is how the boundaries between audience member and performer blur, meaning yes — whether you like it or not, you will participate. There are, of course, levels of how involved the demands range, and the most imposing will naturally line up with the boldest volunteers among you. In any case, nothing embarrassing or taxing will be asked of you. And if you’re all in — make sure to wear flat shoes.

The Fever. Photo by Maria Baranova.
The Fever. Photo by Maria Baranova.

The Fever is a mind-boggling work of art, posing the sort of heady questions and concerns that you might find in an installation at the Moma Ps1, or the Palais de Tokyo. But unlike the stilted neutrality of an art museum, The Fever is unusually warm and intimate, forging a space inhabited by strangers into one of mutual recognition and camaraderie. That so much of the performance involves watching other people react (or not react) to the occasion is almost as fascinating as the enigmatic events that take place center stage. Without speaking, you’re compelled to invent entire histories about, for instance, the bald man wearing a look of permanent amusement, or the young professional-looking woman with a top bun and sleek blazer.

Though the performance does offer a womb-like suspension of reality, at points its mounting sense of communion does take on dark implications, wherein an unnerving demonstration of the limits of responsibility and compliance take form. If the ritualistic dimensions of cults, or of certain religions for that matter, have ever piqued your interest, The Fever provides debatably one of the safest chances you’ll get to experience something akin.

I’m not entirely sure if I enjoyed catching The Fever, as it were, but it’s unlikely I’ll contract anything like it in this lifetime at least. Like traveling to a foreign country for the first time, or even experimenting with recreational drugs, this performance offers an experience that the mind and body is unaccustomed to digesting. Inevitably, a small trace of it will remain in your bloodstream, and you can make of that what you will.

Created in Collaboration with Brandon Wolcott, Emil Abramyan, and Eric Southern. 

Running Time: 75 Minutes

The Fever plays through November 4, 2018, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company – 641 D Street NW, Washington, DC. Tickets can be purchased at the box office, by calling 202-393-3939, or online.

The Fever is fully accessible to people with mobility restrictions. For information call the box office at 202-393-3939.

Click to read John Stoltenberg’s Magic Time! column about The Fever.

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