Out There's 'The Fever' makes empathy contagious

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Maria Baranova

The McGuire Theater stage is covered with a platform made of red panels that evoke the interlocking mats that are ubiquitous in school gymnasiums. It's surrounded by chairs, where you're seated in a small audience for The Fever. You're not asked to do calisthenics, exactly, but you don't sit still, either.

The third show in the Walker Art Center's 2018 Out There series is presented by the duo 600 HIGHWAYMEN: Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone, in this case joined by collaborators who don't become evident until the performance is well underway. Even after The Fever is over, you may find yourself checking the program to confirm exactly who was in on it and who wasn't.

Despite its intimidating title, The Fever doesn't have the air of frantic anxiety that permeates Wallace Shawn's unrelated 1990 play of the same title, nor is it about a literal fever. It does involve a certain contagion, but what's catching is a sense of empathy and community spirit. Nonetheless, the show does have its bleaker moments.

As the performance begins, Browde and Silverstone rise from the audience to tell the story of a party and its aftermath. Audience members are enlisted to play the roles of various characters, all of whom are described as having their own private preoccupations. They're worried about fitting in, about having a good time, about navigating the stages of their lives. With all the coordinated group movement, the show starts to feel like a playground game written by John Updike.

As the show progresses, the narrative becomes increasingly abstract and the party recedes into the background. The audience participation largely becomes the performance, with attendees joining in gentle interactions that gradually grow in scope and intensity, and the entire audience ultimately being pulled into a modest maelstrom of waving hands and circling bodies.

It all unfolds in a hushed, reverent atmosphere created by the performers' quietly deliberate affects and reinforced with an ambient musical score composed by Brandon Wolcott and Emil Abramyan. Eric Southern designed the production, which also involves a dynamic grid of overhead lights to illuminate the emerging choreography.

Between the twinkling lights, the aching soundtrack, and the smiling artists creating a sense of shared sympathy, there's an unmistakably magical feeling to this Fever. In the show's most compelling moments, individual audience members are left alone onstage, enacting small gestures dictated by the artists. They're acting, but they're also themselves. We know nothing about them, but we're curious and concerned.

The proceedings do get a little precious — "Spin me like we're dancing. Again. Again!" — and for all the audience participation, The Fever is decidedly not a democracy. ("I was afraid," said one audience member after Thursday's show, "that if I got up there I would...make a sound.") Still, Browde and Silverstone draw you into a strange and sometimes wonderful world, where you can soak in a warm bath of trust and attention. This year could use a lot more of that.

IF YOU GO:

Out There 2018: The Fever
Walker Art Center
7 and 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday


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