Saturday, August 11, 2012

Play: The Fever

(Cohort Theatre, Dir: Rose Plotek)

SummerWorks Festival (Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace). Friday, August 9, 2012.

"The relative affluence existing in the United States is directly dependant upon the labor and resources of the Vietnamese, the Angolans, the Bolivians and the rest of the peoples of the Third World. All of the United Airlines Astrojets, all of the Holiday Inns, all of Hertz's automobiles, your television set, car and wardrobe already belong, to a large degree to the people of the rest of the world."

"You Don't Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows" [Weatherman manifesto], 1969

Once it gets in your system it can take over like a fever racking your mind. There's only so much to go around in this world, and we have so much of it while they have so little. It's not an accident, not in nature's design; it's the outcome of a system that has been put in place.

And what if you travel a little, see the world, and have it rubbed in your face? You thought you were just getting by back home, but in the grand scheme of things, you're rich, rich, rich. They toil in squalid conditions for such meagre pay, and we get everyday low prices.

Doesn't it make sense that we should support progressive politics, advocate for more fairness, suggest that we could do with a little less? Doesn't it make sense that they should support revolutionary politics, throw out their oppressors and try to create a society with less abject misery?

I remember, as more sensitive and less callous youth, being terrified at doing this calculus over and over. Our comfort depends on their poverty. I didn't have to look hard to see the gross inequalities in the world, and I remember how stirring it felt, how much idealism it brought on — the system is broken, and we can fix it!

And then, I remember reading and reading and thinking endlessly and angstfully about it. Getting deeper and deeper, and realizing how complete the system was, how invisible it is. How it defines us and gives us our sense of self. How complicit we are in it. And the further down you chase those invisible connections, and the deeper you find them anchored into the very core of your being, the more idealism bleeds away, replaced by a grim, feverish determinism. I am part of the system. The system is me. I am a good person, it's not my fault that armed guards in sweatshops watch over the people making the consumer products I enjoy. I feel their pain.

But so what?

This monologue, written by Wallace Shawn, takes us through all of these contradictory realizations. After a decent, secure life, the play's character has had a political awakening. Visiting a poor country, she realizes how much she has, how little they have. When she returns home, everything is suffused with a "sour lovelessness", as she realizes her lifestyle is subsidized by other people's misery. But what can she do about it? Give everything she has to the poor? Didn't she work hard for it, isn't is hers? Should she live in misery so that someone else can be comfortable?

And back and worth it goes — a comfortable life's synthesis and a miserable world's antithesis are incommensurate vocabularies, whose insolubility brings the titular fever. The text is by no means overwhelmingly didactic — circling around back and worth on itself, it weaves together many strands of biography, desires, and ideals shifting and connecting through tantalizing threads of associative logic.

At a technical level, it's a tour-de-force for actor Katie Swift, who delivers the rapid-fire dialogue, talking non-stop for over an hour. But it feels like a real conversation — just one where ideas come out in a steady rush and one thing leads to another quickly enough to keep you unsettled.

Also noteworthy is Rebecca Picherack's subtle lighting design. At the beginning of the piece, Swift simply walked down the aisle and sat on the stage's single chair. The house lights remained up as she began, reinforcing the feeling of a conversation. It was only with exquisite slowness that the lighting changed, focusing on Swift more tightly as her words burrowed down and became more internal. Slowly, everything darkens and becomes murky.

The topic obviously fascinates me still, and I felt a sense of sympathy at watching the protagonist trying to work these things out. But the seeming irresolvable futility was, at some level, as frustrating as my own inability to satisfactorily escape the dilemma. The fever either burns you up, or you find some form of first-aid to tamp it down to something manageable, to make it one more niggling background hum that just becomes a part of the symphony of all of a life's problematic background hums.

It's not a theatre of catharsis — if anything it invokes a Foucauldian sense of a self-enclosed system which defines us to our core and from which there is no escape. The system is all-encompassing. The critique and proposed solutions are part of the system and reinforce it, strengthen it. There's no foothold to get outside of the system. Once you accept the framing of the problem, there is no response that doesn't implicate you. (You want to advocate gradual reform? Then you're prolonging other people's misery. You want to try and raise your kids to be good, moral people? Then a generation from now they'll be passing the same smug platitudes along and nothing will have changed.)

It's hard to imagine that the intended audience is going to be surprised by any of this. This play isn't being performed for the Conservative caucus or for heads of state at a G20 conference. Instead, it's being presented to a well-educated, culturally-aware crowd who laugh with meta-awareness as the protagonist intones how supporting socially aware art won't, can't, change things.

At the same time, it remains a timely piece. Socially concerned people hereabouts have spent more time lately inveighing against the 1% — at one level, this monologue turns the tables and reminds us that in the global scheme of things we are the greedy "haves". Would we dare to apply the share-and-share-alike arguments we aim at bankers to ourselves?

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded

Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed

Everybody knows that the war is over

Everybody knows the good guys lost

Everybody knows the fight was fixed

The poor stay poor, the rich get rich

That's how it goes

Everybody knows

"Everybody Knows", Leonard Cohen

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