Playwright Sheila Callaghan gives us an hilarious play that pops the American corporate blimp. In director Howard Shalwitz and this superlative Woolly Mammoth production, Callaghan has found collaborators who bring her lively dialogue and characters to life.
A grotesque elevator shaft towers above. Upstage, a big city skyscraper, topped by a cherry-red light, leans at a precarious tilt. A second skyscraper lays fallen, like a horizontal crossbeam; its ice-cube tray windows casting a square lighting pattern on the floor (surreal seat design by Misha Kachman). Reassuring strains of the 1940s pop ballad “Dream when you’re feeling blue….Things never are as bad as they seem…” drift in like soothing elevator music. We’re in corporate America, and something is out of kilter.
The sounds of dripping water and hum of fluorescent overheads bring us into a basement where shaggy-haired, straggly-bearded Segis (Daniel Eichner) sits in a dimly-lit pit, chained to his desk, eating strings of macaroni dropped to him through a tube. He’s frantically manning a customer-service phone.
Two scruffily-dressed messengers, Rose, (Kimberly Gilbert) wearing a winged bike-helmet and Claire (Jessica Frances Dukes) emerge from the screeching, expressive, rusty elevator.
On the 77th floor, Segis’ father Bill Basil, (regally depicted by Drew Eshelman) stares with the hauteur of a monarch through his floor-to-ceiling window. Basil, the CEO of the multi-billion dollar empire which employs Segis, is planning his retirement. “What’s the use of building an empire if there is no blood legacy to receive it?” he asks his office manager, Fred Clotaldo (Michael Willis). Shortly after, father and son swap jobs for a day. Basil goes to the basement. Segis assumes the CEO’s chair.
Half the fun of Fever/Dream is figuring out how Callaghan’s madcap world of absurdity is based on her template, Calderon de la Barca’s 1636 philosophical morality play, Life is a Dream.
Callaghan, who also writes for the Showtime series “The United States of Tara,” staples together outwardly nonsensical dialogue by anchoring Fever/Dream to Calderon’s plot and characters. In the original, King Basilio of Poland, fearful of an ominous horoscope that predicted his son Segismundo would one day bring him down, locks him in a tower, where he grows up isolated and half-savage. Years later, when thinking about succession, Basilio grants his legitimate heir one day upon the throne. The son blows it by lashing out and wreaking havoc. Segismundo is thrown back in prison and told he only dreamed he was king for a day. But there’s always a second chance. From experience, the King’s son uses reason and self-control to face another round with destiny.
Callaghan cannot, of course, translate every seventeenth-century trope in Calderon’s play into a twenty-first century corporate American equivalent. But, sensitive to the rhythms of corporate cant, stock market lingo, and bloggers’ hip lip, she succeeds often enough to make Calderon’s wisdom her own.
Director Howard Shalwitz amps up a superlative cast to a feverish pitch. Once you get warmed up, you’re either chuckling or falling off your seat laughing with the supercharged, high-octane energy, melodramatic, deadpan farce this tightly-wired ensemble delivers.
The play is full of exquisitely staged moments. When Basil’s underling Aston Marton (a wonderfully corporate-cool Kenyatta Rogers) woos Stella (the incomparable Kate Eastwood Norris), he text messages a parody of Calderon’s baroque poetry, which we read via a flashing digital banner: “Yr glimmering eyes shame the stars.” “When will U open your petals to me again?”
When Segis sits in the CEO’s chair for the first time, he screams in terror at the floor to ceiling window view from the 77th floor and later goes through a maniacal routine of magical discoveries of executive office conveniences like automatic staplers, a tray lavishly displayed with food, and an in-office, full-service bar.
The corporate American dream is a feverish dream. But Callaghan throws in a reformation, the twist in the send-up of a climactic Hollywood ending, replete with hovering helicopter and a blimp.
With imaginative direction by Shalwitz, superb performances by Eichner, Eschelman, Rogers, Norris, Gilbert and Dukes, and fine technical work by Colin K. Bills (lights), Evan Martella (back up video), Veronika Vorel (sound) and Franklin Labovitz (costumes), Calderon is surely looking down in amazement and smiling.
by Sheila Callaghan
directed by Howard Shalwitz
produced by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
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