The Mixed Feelings of Being from the Privileged Class
In theater and movies fevers, like dreams, play a special role. In North American culture, they cue us to thinking what is expressed is coming from the deepest and unfiltered parts of our unconscious minds. So from the title alone we are to understand this is a stream-of-(un)consciousness work, and Wallace (Wally) Shawn holds tight to this trope to present his audience with the uncomfortable realities of being white and of the privilege classes in America.
Shawn wrote this in 1990. He could have written this for 1940 or 2040. It’s the nature of the luck of being born privileged to spend most of one’s life blithely unaware of the violence and “rule of law” that contributed to that “luck.” It takes something stark to tear through the layers of lies and class-deceptions to get near the core truths.
Like a fever while in a bug-ridden hotel room in any third world (most likely South American) country.
Llysa Holland opens the first show in the transitioning space that is 18th and Union* by casually mingling with the couple of dozen members of the audience assembled in the foyer to the theater. She takes a seat and asks a few other improvised questions about our travels before pouring herself a glass of wine and flicking on a standing lamp. Like someone who suddenly remembers they had a remarkable experience and wants to share it at a party, she launches into the monodrama and hold us in her very capable hands for the next 90 minutes.
If you have seen Wally Shawn’s My Dinner with Andre from 1981 you will know that he puts his talents to work communicating ideas. His performance character is someone who begins a thought, corrects himself, and sometimes spins in fresh directions with the relaunched sentence. Now expand that across 90 minutes, and you appreciate Holland’s talents at breaking off from one idea to follow a tangent only to come back to the first idea 20 or 30 minutes later. She also adds a dimension to the play of being a woman in a role Shawn originally wrote for himself.
Like some of the issues raised during this Presidential election cycle, Shawn’s script raises issues around financial dominance by the few and the service or rebellion to that dominance by the multitudes. This has certainly been raised in this election, especially in the primaries with the remarkable successes of Bernie Sanders.
The speaking character is oddly masochistic, like it’s a type of penance for her amazing good luck to being born privileged. She travels to poor countries to experience what life is like for the poor that support the quite few financial decision makers for whom the rest of humanity serve.
“The holders of money determine what’s done—they bid their money for the things they want, each one according to the amount they hold—and each bit of money determines some fraction of the day’s activities, so those who have a little determine a little, and those who have a lot determine a lot, and those who have nothing determine nothing. … Everyone knows that the world will not do everything today: if food is produced for the hungry children, then certain operas will not be performed; if certain performances are in fact given, then the food won’t be produced and the children will die.”
It’s quite a privilege to travel to poor countries in search of such insights. A flight from Seattle to Ecuador costs $800; to Kenya, $1300.
Such a paradox, as these prices are quite out of the reach of the down-trodden poor whose oppression buttress the easy lives of the rich. Don’t expect them to travel the world to rich countries to understand how the rich live—but even without travel they understand it well enough without leaving home.
Wally himself is the son of William Shawn, famous editor of The New Yorker for 35 years. Though Wally did vagabond around a bit and worked several odd jobs in his twenties, he himself was never in much danger of permanently leaving the privileged classes. One call to his dad could fix any problem he faced either from his father’s own resources or from those of his father’s connections.
The script could be trimmed 20 minutes, easily, as there is much repetition. Shawn has fallen into the common progressive community’s sentiment that if a statement is true if you state it once, it’s ten times truer if you say it ten times. Holland cannot be faulted for this as she kept to the text as written.
Leave time for the after play discussion for additional insights into the production and our strange election. theater simple will be presenting this play in other small parlor setting in the near future, visit their site for details: theatersimple.org
* 18th and Union is the new name of the space now managed by the Radial Theater Project. It was the performance space for New City Theater with will still use the space with a residency for 10 weeks in the spring.
The Fever (1990) by Wallace Shawn, directed by M. Burke Walker featuring Llysa Holland. theater simple production. Runtime: 90 minutes, no intermission. 18th and Union: An Arts Space, 1406 18th Avenue. Central District. Sundays at 4 PM. Pay-what-you-will post show, $15- $40 suggested donation. Tickets: (206) 937-6499, http://18thandunion.org Runs Oct 2 to Oct 16.