La Mama: The Fever

In a hotel room in a third-world country, an unnamed person recounts a story of the fever he suffers from – and he’s not talking about the illness that has him sweaty and vomiting.

La Mama. The Fever
La Mama. The Fever

Written by actor Wallace Shawn for himself to perform at private functions, The Fever debuted in 1990 and underwent a re-write in 2007 before Shawn performed it Off-Broadway. The play does not specify whether the solo speaker is male or female, so The Fever has been performed by both men and women – and was turned into a film by HBO starring Vanessa Redgrave.

Actor James Wardlaw takes on the role here and while taller and lankier than Shawn, he has some resemblance to the original writer and performer.

The Fever tackles a wide range of issues, though its main focus is on the kind of white privilege that feels good about being a rich tourist in a poor country. That is the titular fever: the lives of the rich are built on the backs of the poor and that cannot change and will not change. This revelation makes him sick but doesn’t dissuade him from touring third world countries, relishing the power and money imbalance.

While La Mama is an intimate space, I wonder how this show played in the private functions it was designed for. This 90-minute monologue, which dragged for two hours on its opening night at La Mama, is a deep criticism of capitalism. Having Shawn project this rant at an audience mid-dinner party must have been more effective than this production, which squanders a rich (though somewhat bloated) text.

Wardlaw’s performance fails to create any empathy with the character early on; he needs to find more humour in the piece before confronting the audience with his litany of criticisms late in the play. Early on, I thought director Tom Healey had stepped back and allowed the performer and text to shine, but as the show goes on, the direction feels more and more undisciplined.

Late in the show, as the monologue reaches its crescendo, Healey seems to have lost trust in Wardlaw, allowing Bronwyn Pringle’s lighting design to swallow the performer – as if the performance needed to be underlined for emphasis.

While The Fever itself is bleak in its outlook, it has interesting things to say. Unfortunately, with a rough-edged performance (Wardlaw stumbled over multiple lines) and loose direction, it became harder and harder to stay interested. A long rant that became interminable.

Anne-Marie Peard

Anne-Marie spent many years working with amazing artists at arts festivals all over Australia. She's been a freelance arts writer for the last 10 years and teaches journalism at Monash University.

Anne-Marie Peard

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