Lower Wacker Productions
at Chicago Dramatists Workshop
COLUMBUS IN THE AGE OF GOLD
At Cafe Voltaire
To call Lower Wacker's production of Wallace Shawn's The Fever a delightful surprise is an understatement--anyone who has read the script knows the tremendous challenge it offers the performer, director, and designer. It's a wickedly difficult monologue in which a man of privileged upbringing stands onstage for an hour and a half, explaining how he's confronted the atrocities perpetrated in "poor countries" but remaining unable to process the experience. For example, he hears of political torture while staying in a posh hotel in a foreign land, and his response is altogether contradictory. One moment he breaks into fits of vomiting, unable to bear the guilt he feels at having so successfully insulated himself from this world all his life. The next moment he's rhapsodizing about the heavenly ice cream the country produces.
The difficulty of this play lies not only in its seeming lack of structure--bits of memory, dream, and reality come and go at a moment's notice--but also in its potential to degenerate into an indulgent white-liberal guilt trip. Luckily performer David Shapiro and director Joann Shapiro appreciate the complexity of Shawn's text, the subtlety of its emotional landscape, and perhaps most important its abundance of ironic humor.
From the moment the play starts we're clearly in good hands. David Shapiro, sitting in an armchair, calmly and methodically begins to describe his dilemma. He recounts in clinical detail the electrocution he apparently witnessed, imagining the things that were concealed from him: the twitching of the body, the smell of burning flesh, the victim's face. Through it all, Shapiro remains composed though genuinely affected. The images are true to him, seemingly before his eyes every moment--he doesn't need to force his emotions because the images are so emotionally charged.
This understated style rings truer than the histrionics too often seen on Chicago stages when dealing with this kind of material. And the distance between the emotions of the text and the emotions of the performer helps create the drama. The Fever is not simply about the impossibility of living with a clean conscience in a wealthy country like the United States; it's about a particular character trying to make sense of his circumstances--it's not the story itself, but the act of telling the story and its effect upon the teller that create the drama.
Shapiro paints every image of this dense text with care, and he lets these images affect him deeply. He always seems to have exactly what he needs at his fingertips, never having to labor over a moment. Like few Chicago actors, he understands the importance of playing a text, not just a character. He lets us appreciate the clarity, elegance, and rhythm of Shawn's prose, even in its most horrifying moments. This musicality also provides a rhythmic structure Shapiro uses to hold the monologue together.
Much of the credit for the even tone of his performance must go to director Joann Shapiro. By directing him to understate rather than lay bare, she imbues the evening with a tension that pushes the monologue forward. This subtlety also allows the nuances of Shawn's text to resonate.
The Fever seems to ask: How can a person of refined sensibility--one who appreciates opera, travel, "orange juice on a table in a glass pitcher"--exist in a world where political torture thrives? Each extreme seems unreal next to the other, yet this surreal quality arises because Shawn focuses on specific, hyperreal details, like dessert forks and electrodes. Brian Shaw's set eloquently captures this tension in three windows that hang in midair, one behind the other, each smaller than the one in front. This design creates a bizarre forced perspective and destabilizes the playing space. Are we inside looking out, or outside looking in? And in either case, what is that window doing in between?
The Fever is a passionate intellectual evening that only occasionally slips into didacticism. Like all of Shawn's work that I know, it asks unnerving and far-reaching questions with humor and candor.
Paul Peditto's Columbus in the Age of Gold stands at the opposite end of the stylistic spectrum. The more outrageous its choices, the more successful it becomes.
On one level it's a rather straightforward retelling of the story of Columbus's conquest and terrorization of the New World. But Peditto wisely undercuts the grandeur of his own project by acknowledging the impossibility of separating myth from fact. He does this by creating contemporary archetypes that embody major historical figures, including King John (Carl Coash), a festooned Hollywood producer who rides a servant tortoise named Maury, and Queen Isabella (Ariel Brenner), a veiled mystery woman with a stony expression--a sort of 40s bombshell drained of sexuality.
Only Columbus (Duane Sharp) is portrayed "realistically," though he clearly understands he's trapped not only in an era when no one understands his worldview, but also in a basement performance space where no one gives him the support he needs. While he desperately tries to move forward with his story, his fellow actors seem rather nonplussed, sometimes yawning in the middle of dramatic moments. He even has to yell at the sound man, hidden behind a black curtain, to stop eating and pay attention.
This theatrical inventiveness provides a refreshing slant on the myth of Columbus, as historical fact col- lides with contemporary irreverence. When this happens Peditto is able to update a distant historical event so that it's no longer just fact but essence. And the play is transformed into an examination of the uses and abuses of power.
The work is least successful when the historical journeys are presented without ironic commentary. In these stretches Columbus tends to simply narrate his various travels from island to island, narration that sometimes becomes so laden with detail that it's difficult to comprehend.
Peditto's cast, which also includes Jeff Strong and Debra Ann Miller, seems at home in this play. Any hesitation or awkwardness is apparently due more to the newness of the script than to a lack of talent. Strong is particularly good in his various deadpan roles as a guard and banner holder. He's the kind of actor who can simply raise an eyebrow and steal the focus.