“You don’t have to be here but I can’t do this alone.”
The rain is starting to pound the walls of Woolfe Street Playhouse. Two people stand in the center of the ‘stage,’ a bare red floor flanked on all sides by black chairs. We, the audience, do not know who is also an unwitting audience member and who is an actor. We assume the person speaking is the one with the script, but the way the silent older woman stares deeply into the actor’s eyes makes you wonder — is she in on it? Or is she just drawn in, an ideal volunteer? Does it matter?
This is one of the many questions 600 Highwaymen asks in The Fever, a production that forces complete strangers to come together to dance, to run, to cheer. While other Spoleto productions masterfully explore how a story is told, The Fever asks — who is the story? I arrive minutes before showtime, alone, asking a couple to my right if the one empty chair is free. Ten minutes later, as the row of chairs across from us starts to make a wave with their hands, we look quizzically at one another. I smile, shrug. “Oh, we thought you were in the show.”
I was in the show, we all were. The company’s writers/directors Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone are so aplomb, leading the charge in a way that I guess, correctly, they’re part of the production. They sit amongst us, as do three other actors — they walk in as we do, give the usher their tickets, chat amicably with their neighbors. At first, as with any new situation, we’re collectively hesitant to join in. But then one person does. And another. And another. And soon multiple people are volunteering their bodies at once, foaming at the mouth to get up from their seats. To be a part of something bigger than themselves. The fever, in a beautifully haunting way, is real. And it only took 20 minutes.
In a review of the The Fever (read it yourself in the Spoleto Festival USA 2019 program book) Ira S. Murfin writes of their experience during a 2017 production, “we are practicing being ready to help each other.” We are practicing empathy during this one hour and 15 minute show, dusting off our hearts and uncovering our eyes in a room where it’s OK to feel uncomfortable, it’s OK to waver.
When the stories we hear and the stories we tell ourselves are absent from a space, when the only props are human bodies, when the big ask is only to move your hands up, to move your hands down, a transformation takes place. Maybe being together with people we don’t know, with people not like us at all, is OK. Maybe it’s more than OK.
The show begins with a volunteer stepping forward and placing her hands on an invisible counter. She’s given the name Mary Anne, “doesn’t Mary Anne look beautiful tonight?” Her arms suspended, Abigail Browde tells us, from her chair, that Mary Anne always wears her hair this way. We learn that she’s just hosted a party, the guests have all left. She’s alone, still buzzing from the energy of so many people she loves gathered together in one place.
It’s a rush and it’s sad and wherever you go there you are, right? Who are you by yourself and who are you when no one is looking — we are later asked to remember being a child, to remember our first secrets, to remember that first time when we knew we were alone — what were we doing?
The physical aspect of The Fever is what you’ll come for — dancing in a circle that closes in and in and in. Helping to lift up and carry a volunteer as if in a peaceful mosh pit. Touching the face of a stranger, resting your hand on their shoulder.
The questions are what you’ll stay for, what will stay with you.
Why were you afraid to take the hand of the person next to you? Why, soon after, were you so easily and blissfully swept up in the group? Who are you when no one is looking?
Please note: There are tickets still available for many of the eight remaining performances. There’s also potential for walk-up tickets, too, even if a performance says it’s sold out. (Meaning if someone doesn’t show up, they’re getting people in at the last second.)