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During the bailout last September, I was a little freaked out. I remember reading about the billions of dollars the government would spend, and furiously refreshing Firefox so I could watch the Dow plummet. As the months continued and payroll employment dropped, I found myself laughing at the bad news with my economist co-workers. High unemployment isn’t exactly funny, yet chuckles are preferable over omnipresent anxiety. Sheila Callaghan’s Fever/Dream, now at Wooly Mammoth, similarly understands how the working world can be one sick joke. Her play, a wild update of Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s La vida es sueño, is very funny, combining broad sight gags with sharp one-liners. Amidst all the jokes and original sets, there is an intriguing message about corporate responsibility, and a suggestion that our generation could give Big Business a friendlier face.

Callaghan replaces 17th century Poland with the Basil Corporation. Company president Bill Basil’s health is quickly deteriorating, so he contemplates the idea of handing the business over to his son, Segis. Segis had the unfortunate luck of being born on Black Monday – coupled with the fact that his mom died during childbirth, Bill thought it best for Segis to live in the building’s basement, chained to a desk. Segis only interacts with Fred, Bill’s dutiful-but-ornery office manager. Bill’s plan is simplicity itself. He will see how Segis runs the company, and if the son’s performance is not to the father’s satisfaction, the company will belong to power couple Stella Strong and Aston Martin.

Meanwhile Rose the bike messenger and her spazzy friend Claire have a parcel for Aston, one that will bring down the company. Before the two women complete their corporate sabotage, Fred hires them both, and Claire becomes a successful temp. Even though Rose puts her plan on hold, Segis inadvertently ruins the family business. He takes cold-hearted business metaphors a little too literally, so he finds himself back in the basement. Fred suggests Segis’ tenure as president was all a dream, yet the young man isn’t entirely convinced.

At first, it seems the characters simply embody the familiar caricatures of the business world. We have the competent Type-A career woman, boot-licking Yes Men, and the distant leader who ponders his legacy. There is even a chorus of hipster mid-level executives. When the play begins, the performances seem over-the-top, and the actors are a little too broadly comic. As the story continues, however, all the actors demonstrate exquisite timing, and even the most absurd character takes on a human dimension. Fred (ably played by Michael Willis) has a peculiar grasp of language, and describes his hobby with dizzying verbal dexterity. Kate Eastwood Norris, who blew me away as Lady Macbeth in last year’s Folger production, excels as a wound-up shrew who easily dispatches masculine authority. With her nasal voice, Jessica Frances Dukes’ Claire quickly became an audience favorite, especially during her more “serious” tirades. As Basil’s new president, Daniel Eichner easily embodies the despot run amok, and each new gag proves more absurd than the last. Still, the cast is at their best when everyone takes the stage and the tone gets manic. They are all at ease with one another, and though the performances are finely tuned, it’s clear they are having fun.

In addition to the rich comic acting, the innovative production keeps the audience on their toes. It looks deceptively simple – the sharp, distorted lines of expressionistic buildings dominate the stage and give it depth. But then the floor slides open, revealing Segis’ basement prison. Meals drop form the ceiling, and as Segis eats the meager strands of spaghetti, he quickly sets the play’s tone. Later we watch actors react to a text message conversation as panes of glass illuminate the exchanges. It’s not just the video elements that are inventive – accountants and hipsters indulge in a dance-off, and there is even time for a hallucinogenic musical number. Callaghan and director Howard Shalwitz clearly swing for the fences, and I can’t help but be thankful for their nervy risks.

With all these whacked-out ideas, I have no doubt that Fever/Dream bears little similarity to its centuries-old inspiration. But honestly, who cares? I can’t remember the last time a play made me laugh so hard. Leaving the theater, my friend and I found ourselves overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of memorable one-liners. Between the chuckles and belly laughs, the dialog is surprisingly layered, and gives the audience plenty to think about. Callaghan’s modern interpretation has a cautiously optimistic viewpoint. Under new management, the Basil corporation promises to terminate the older, more inhumane way of conducting business. And the complex relationships contain ideas on familial responsibility, the nature of women in the workforce, as well as the more dubious aspects of nepotism. Like Rock’n’Roll a few months back, multiple viewings might offer further insight. Even if you ignore its thematic depth, Fever/Dream is about as funny as the sharpest Hollywood comedy, and far more rewarding.

Fever/Dream

by Sheila Callaghan

directed by Howard Shalwitz

June 1 – June 28th, 2009

featuring company members Jessica Frances Dukes, Kimberly Gilbert, Kate Eastwood Norris and Michael Willis, with Daniel Eichner, Drew Eshelman, and KenYatta Rogers

further details:

http://www.woollymammoth.net/performances/show_fever_dream.php

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