As Miss Jean Brodie almost said in Muriel Spark’s wonderful novel: “For those who like this sort of thing… this is the sort of thing they like.”
How to describe The Fever, a 75-minute event presented here by theater artists Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone under the name 600 Highwaymen as part of the Philadelphia International Arts Festival? Though the “Philadelphia” part is dispositive, I think for The Fever, the rest is debatable.
In particular, is it art? Or an encounter-group, a cult indoctrination session, an icebreaker-from-hell that goes on at least an hour too long?
You’ll have to decide for yourselves. I can be of only minimal assistance, since The Fever very clearly works best—for those on whom it works, at least—with minimal prior knowledge.
What I guess I can say is that it’s a small group experience, wherein the audience will be asked—no, expected—to participate in a way that engages with the action and with each other. At the beginning, there is the hint of a story—a party given by someone named Marianne is described by narrator with a lyrical sense of remove, as though it were a short story from a time long ago. I was rather charmed—The Fever suggested an Our Town-ish sweetness and poignant charm.
Shortly after, though, it took a turn. Marianne’s party was sidelined, as narrative gave way to a series of instructions for the audience. Perhaps because I grew up in Los Angeles, where friends did EST the way normal people get their hair done, this to me felt very much like a trite piece of 1970s-style of mind control. And I was having none of it.
You might feel very differently. A lot of the audience appeared to be moved and uplifted by The Fever. Good for them.
I can only speak to my own experience. And since the goal of this profoundly, indeed annoyingly earnest piece of work seems to be candor, I will air my feelings: I am the sort of person who loathes this sort of thing, and this is the sort of I thing I loathed.
According to the PIFA website, The Fever deals with “empathy,” and it “tests the limits of individual and collective responsibility and our willingness to be there for one another.” For me, it tested how long I could be in a theater without running out screaming. The answer is 75 minutes, and just barely.
The Fever has performances through June 10. For more information, visit the Philadelphia International Arts Festival website.