On the sixth and seventh day of the 58th International Theater Festival MESS, Sarajevo’s audience had a chance to see, and to participate in the performance The Fever, produced by New York-based group 600 Highwaymen. Founders of the group, who are also the authors and directors of this performance are Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone, in co-operation with Brandon Wolcott, Emil Abramyan, and Eric Southern. In the performance, together with the audience, and aforementioned Browde and Silverstone, also performing are Nile Harris, Tommer Peterson, and Ita Segev.
In the Festival programme booklet we can read that The Fever is a work which tests the limits of individual and collective responsibility, and our willingness to be there for one another. Interaction with the audience is achieved from the very start, when the performers – squeezed altogether with the audience in a circle of chairs – take one-by-one viewer, and give them small roles in their story. They are asking us to imagine a city, and in that city an unusually beautiful girl named Marianne, who on that evening, after a party organized in her apartment, felt lonely. Simple tasks are requested from the viewers, mostly just to, by their presence, accentuate the presence of one of the people who came to the party. They are not asked to speak, nor to reveal anything personal about themselves. Presence alone is mostly requested from all of us.
The second part of the performance leaves the story of Marianne, and places Tommer Peterson in the center of activity, the oldest of the performers, who is asking somebody to stand by his side. When some of the viewers willingly stand up and stand by him, he falls, while they are trying to catch him. As hard as they try, even when the strongest of the viewers tries to catch him, Peterson’s body will fall. When it falls, he will ask that he’s turned over on the ground, that his arms are straightened, and that he is left in peace. When he gets up again, he will repeat the same. Multiple times. And those who were the quickest to help at first, with time become more reluctant to get up from their seats. In the third part, where the performance is mostly led by Ita Segev and Nile Harris, the viewers are called out in order to share some more personal moments with the performers, accentuating the body and closeness of another, one similar to us, who is standing there, in front, or beside us. This is further emphasized by questions: “Which is your first memory?”, “Do you remember yourself as a child?”, and “Does that child still exist inside?” … No answers are asked in response to these questions, and since there is no space for the possible answers, there is no possibility that the situation set-up in this way will actually become a moment of closeness between two or more strangers.
This exact running away from a deepening closeness, immediately after the initiated point of meeting/recognizing, and on which this performance is insistent, is the exact main weakness to this concept. Depth is impossible to establish after bringing it to consciousness, and then it is quickly skipped to the next thing, and the next situation. The performers maintain an absolutely kind, but also reserved attitude toward the audience, often times making them rigid in their instructing, which at times causes mild confusion. The performers are rigidly sticking to their concept, and are, at all cost, returning back to it, even when – something logical for plays which consider interacting, if not desirable – unexpected situations occur. The viewers who refused to participate in the interaction are simply ignored. On the other hand, during their first Sarajevo performance, one of the viewers was in a wheelchair. In a performance where the viewers are frequently asked to stand up, walk, or to sit down – he was just left in neglect – instead of being included into the story somehow.
Ultimately, this is a performance which aspires to establish awareness of the presence of another being among strangers. The writer of this critique had the (mis)fortune of knowing, if not closely, then as by-passers, the majority of the rest of the viewers. Those who have gone to see the other performances, returned from The Fever with a considerably warmer experience and feeling, while mine remained lukewarm. In any case, The Fever is there to point to one important thing: in almost each moment, whether in a café, a theater or a tramcar, we are surrounded by the others, those similar to us. Their presence is necessary to us, as ours is to them. We are living next to each other, but also together with each other, and are dependent from each other, from those similar.