Dallas — At times brimming with gleeful nostalgia and others indicting the audience for their sins, The Fever by 600 Highwaymen, the moniker for theatre artists Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone, cultivates a powerful and gripping theatrical experience.
The Fever, which was presented for one week in the Wyly Theatre’s Studio Theatre, part of the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Off-Broadway on Flora series, tests the limits of individual and collective responsibility, and our willingness to be there for one another. Performed in complete collaboration with the audience, The Fever, which was viewed at the matinee on the final day of the Dallas run, examines how we assemble, organize and care for the bodies around us. It begs the questions “Who will you be when our eyes are on you?” and “What will we see when we all look your way?”
To give away much of the plot would spoil the surprise of this fully interactive and participatory experience, but it does serve to say that this does not resemble familiar styles of interactive shows.
While audiences fear being dragged onstage against their will and humiliated for the entertainment of others, 600 Highwaymen at no time require such a sacrifice. All participation is strictly voluntary, with most interactions beginning with the question, “Will you do this with me?” They have taken what could very well be a stressful environment and turned it into the best kind of theatre—fully collaborative from start to finish. Along the way, The Fever tackles topics such as community, xenophobia, terror, love, and uncertainty, all while barely breaking a sweat. Even though the production was conceived and initially produced before the most recent election, the shadows of Trump’s America reverberate throughout the piece serving as both a warning and a call to action.
While collaborators Browde and Silverstone initially drive that action, the entire audience, seated on four sides around the perimeter of the stage, serves as the cast of the production in one way or another. Browde starts the evening with a simple mirroring that appears out of nowhere until everyone in the house participates, immediately transported to the world she has created with Silverstone. The ability of the duo—along with a few cleverly placed additional actors in the forms of Bryan Saner, Nile Harris, and Jax Jackson—to delicately coax beautiful performances from people who may not identify as actors themselves amazes, especially considering that they do it in the manner of the best magicians; we are awed and want to know the secrets but dare not ask for fear of ruining the experience.
The technical elements take The Fever from great to splendid. Original music by Brandon Wolcott and Emil Abramyan sets a tone evocative of that sort of fever dream referenced in the title. The music crests and falls almost imperceptibly, cradling us in a manner both comforting and worrisome. Production design by Eric Southern shapes our focus with warm glows and sharp columns of light, creating moments of ritual-like community in one minute and stark separations of fear in the next. The technical team has taken the show and somehow placed it on both ends of a spectrum at one time, an artistic manifestation of Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto.
As the final moments of the performance near, that familiar feeling of tension in the pit of the stomach appears. It builds much the same way it always has before, but instead of releasing in a final moment of catharsis, the tension remains, carried away from the theatre, a contagion that could go on forever. One could only hope that this fever will continue to spread.
Here's hoping that Dallas can continue to support imports of this kind of work, in addition to big touring musicals.