Posts Tagged ‘the fever’

Performance Diary: Wally Shawn fever

October 22, 2021

Most people who aware of Wally Shawn know him as a funny face in movies like The Princess Bride or a funny voice in animated films like Toy Story. A subset of the population associates him with My Dinner with Andre, Louis Malle’s 1981 film of Shawn and director Andre Gregory sitting in a restaurant talking about life and death and art; apparently, a whole new generation has caught onto this film thanks to references on The Simpsons and TikTok parodies, and it’s been cited as progenitor to the world of low-budget mumblecore movies. Shawn’s most substantial contribution as an artist, however, is his body of work as a playwright. He hasn’t written that many plays, and they’re not performed that often. When they do, it’s a cause for celebration and attention.

Currently onstage at the Minetta Lane Theatre is the one-person play The Fever, co-produced by Audible (which plans to release it as an audiobook) and the New Group, whose artistic director Scott Elliott is one of Shawn’s primary champions in the theater world and who staged this production, which stars Lili Taylor. Tiny, whip-smart, and super-appealing, Taylor previously appeared in Shawn’s play Aunt Dan and Lemon, also directed by Elliott for the New Group. The Fever is a tricky, intellectually thorny, emotionally challenging piece (the complete text is available online here), and Taylor (below, photographed by Daniel Rader) dives deeply and bravely into this exercise in thinking out loud.

Originally performed in 1990 by Shawn himself, The Fever is a 1 hour and 40 minute monologue by a character known as The Traveller. Sitting on the floor of the bathroom in a hotel room in the middle of the night, “in a poor country where my language isn’t spoken,” she experiences a dark night of the soul, brooding about her life and especially her relationship to money, her economic class, poor people, world politics, and the death penalty. Typical for Wally Shawn’s plays, the character is slippery – at times she evokes identification and sympathy, other times you draw away from her. You’re constantly having to gauge your distance from her. She fanatically examines what she’s observing in great detail, whether it’s her internal experience of being at a cocktail party or ruminating over the meaning of the expression “commodity fetishism” as it turns up in Karl Marx’s Capital.

At the core of the piece is a moral wrestling match that many of us experience walking down the street in New York every day. You see a homeless person begging on the street – you think, “I’ll give him some money” – a voice inside you says, “Why not give him ALL your money?” – you retort, “I can’t give him ALL my money…” In The Fever Shawn carries that internal dialogue on to the nth degree. It could devolve into liberal hand-wringing but it never does, because Shawn’s prose is so carefully wrought and Taylor’s performance stays absolutely present. Shawn’s work always makes audiences uncomfortable, and this play is no exception – some people will find it very hard to take. But I respect it tremendously.

Writing the play coincided with a political awakening for Shawn. He first started performing it in people’s living rooms before taking it to theaters all over New York City and then in England. Taylor is not the first woman to undertake the role, Clare Higgins played it onstage in London in 2009, and Vanessa Redgrave made a film of The Fever in 2004 (directed by her son, Carlo Gabriel Nero) that softened the edges of the play. (Shawn approached the amazing Kathy Baker to do the play onstage in New York and/or Los Angeles, but she said no.) I appreciated the beguiling levity Taylor brings to the performance; Shawn wrote a charming opening scene for her to greet the audience and set the stage.

I still cling fondly to the memory of the last time The Fever was produced in New York, when Scott Elliott directed Shawn in a beautifully nuanced staging that explicitly conjured a connection to the existential starkness of Samuel Beckett’s monologues that I’d never previously perceived in Shawn’s work. (During the pandemic, Elliott created a Zoom version of Waiting for Godot, in which Shawn gave an astonishing performance as Lucky to Tariq Trotter’s Pozzo, with Ethan Hawke and John Leguizamo as Didi and Gogo.) In the intimacy of the Minetta Lane, Taylor occasionally spoke so softly that passages got lost, including the powerful last couple of lines. All the more reason to anticipate the audio version when it’s released by Audible. Shawn himself recorded the play in 1999 for a 2-CD package released in 2006 that is now out of print, but apparently some used copies are available online through Amazon.

Speaking of audio versions, a huge mid-pandemic gift to theatergoers in general — and Wally Shawn fans in particular — arrived this year in the form of six-part podcast versions of his plays The Designated Mourner and Grasses of a Thousand Colors. These productions reunite Shawn with director Andre Gregory and the original New York casts of the plays. In collaboration with sound designer and composer Bruce Odland, they’ve created exquisite “theater of the ear” to match the best Broadway original cast recordings (especially those of Stephen Sondheim’s musicals).

David Hare first staged The Designated Mourner in London with three actors sitting at a bare table and filmed that production, which featured Mike Nichols in the title role. In New York, the play ran for a few months at a 30-seat theater in a disused gentlemen’s club in the Wall Street area, exquisitely directed by Andre Gregory and performed by Shawn, Deborah Eisenberg (extraordinary writer and Shawn’s longtime companion), and Larry Pine. That production was revived in 2013 at the Public Theater (a co-production with Theater for a New Audience), and that’s the production captured for the podcast edition.

Some people, including myself, consider The Designated Mourner to be one of the most profound pieces of writing created for any medium in the last 20 years. It is a bleak, dread-inducing meditation on the decline of Western civilization delivered through monologues by three inhabitants of a politically repressive country where intellectual freedom has effectively been persecuted out of existence. To indulge in Wally Shawn-like hyperbole, I would go so far as to say that the world would be a better, though not necessarily happier place, if all students, teachers, politicians, fornicators, and Netflix subscribers put down their magazines, turned off their cel phones and TV sets, and read, re-read, studied and discussed The Designated Mourner for the next year. Written 25 years ago when it seemed like a dystopian fantasy, the play depicts all-too-recognizably the inexorable drift toward anti-intellectual authoritarianism that we’re viewing today not just in Russia and China but in Brazil, Turkey, Hungary, and that roguest of rogue nations, the United States of America.

Grasses of a Thousand Colors is a different animal altogether. First produced at the Royal Court Theatre in London (where My Dinner with Andre also got its start), Grasses made its American debut at the Public Theater as part of the same deal with Theater for a New Audience. It’s a big, long, crazy, intense three-act fantasia about a famous scientist named Ben who’s overwhelmingly fixated on his penis – the sort of thing that never happens in real life — and his relationships with three different women (his wife, his mistress, and his girlfriend, named for three shades of red: Cerise, Robin, and Rose) and a mysterious shape-shifting cat named Blanche who may be the shamanic double of Cerise and/or possibly God. It’s set in some apocalyptic near-future when some initially successful experiments with increasing the world’s food supply have gone dreadfully wrong. And the stories that Ben and his playmates tell – addressing the audience directly, as is usually the case in Shawn’s plays – teem with images of animals. Eating and fucking. Dick and Pussy. Humans and animals. Wally himself plays the main character, known as Ben or the memoirist, who says things like, “When I was a boy, parents never masturbated in front of their children. In fact, children never masturbated in front of their parents! And God knows children would never make out with their parents or fuck them, ever, because that would have been seen as utterly shocking…So, you see, for me, the way things are now still seems astonishing – I mean, the fact that people talk about their penises and vaginas in public, at dinner parties, in magazines, and newspapers. I can’t get over it. Ha ha ha!”

In London, Miranda Richardson played both Cerise (live and aglow with flecks of glitter oiled into her skin) and Blanche (exclusively on film, often with a red ribbon tied around her neck); in New York, those roles were played by Julie Hagerty. A surprising presence was Jennifer Tilly as Robin, who brings a fascinating and unpredictable mixture of vulgarity and enigma to the role. And Emily McDonnell, a young actress from the Richard Maxwell downtown theater world, played Rose. (Pictured above) This strange strange play, which is a bizarre combination of fairy tale, fever dream, and The Story of O, is quite unlike any other play I’ve seen before, except that it bears a distinct family resemblance to other wild, linguistically pungent, sexually transgressive, disturbing and disorienting Wally Shawn plays (Our Late Night, Marie and Bruce, The Music Teacher, The Designated Mourner). The audio version is a wild ride, alternately hilarious and grotesque, poetic and appalling, outrageous and riveting.

Critics and commentators have often noted that Shawn’s plays tend to gravitate toward long monologues, sometimes elaborate storytelling, sometimes deeply internal reveries, imparting a literary, novelistic flavor. That’s what makes the audio versions really work – there’s very little action that you’re missing. I’ve saved the best news for last: these podcasts are available for free from Apple Podcasts. Check them out and let me know what you think.

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