Up and on your feet in ‘The Fever,’ from Philadelphia International Festival of Arts

An audience participation show can be interpreted several ways.

Audience and cast involved in a performance of

Audience and cast involved in a performance of "The Fever." (Photo courtesy of Lauren Woodward)

“The Fever” at the Kimmel Center begins as all audience participation shows do, it seems: with a wary audience. Minutes before the show — a part of the Kimmel’s current Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts — a stranger sitting nearby asked, “What’s this show about?” I gave a glib answer: “Beats me, and in 90 minutes we still may not know.”

As a matter of fact, it was more like 60 minutes. What we had come to know, I think, varied from one member of the audience to another. But we needn’t have worried about the audience participation part, totally nonthreatening and all inclusive. So by the show’s end in a large and empty space with a row of chairs on all four sides, every one of us – maybe 80 all told — had been the performers, some more and some less.

That in itself is an achievement for the Brooklyn-based theater company called 600 Highwaymen, which is basically two theater artists, Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone, creating original work in collaboration with their casts. “The Fever,” enhanced by little more than original incidental music by Brandon Wolcott and Emil Abramyan and precise lighting (Eric Southern’s production design), is both fascinating and abstract. I’ll refrain from detailing its contents in respect to Browde, who asks the audience not to give too much away — and it’s wrong to do so, in any case.

Here’s what I can safely say: The take-away from “The Fever,” which involves little plots and many thoughts about growing up, growing old and being supported by others and comfortable in the world, is unclear. It’s supposed to be that way, it seems.

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If you refer to the program notes, you’ll see a piece by an academic about the show’s evocation of empathy. For me, empathy played only a part in the communal experience as we rose from our seats, did hand-and-arm movements that brought us together as one, moved in unison and represented characters whose thoughts were expressed by Browde, Silverstone and other cast members sitting among us.

For sure, much of “The Fever” is about building community and understanding its culture, even when we take our roles in the community for granted. But a related theme became clear to me as the show – it became our show – unfolded: Connection with others imprints us, and, we, in turn, affect others, even if only for a minute.

This struck me as I was on my way home on a bus up Broad Street to Suburban Station. A gentleman said he thought he saw me in the audience and wanted to know what I thought the show was about. For two minutes we each turned it over in our heads, because we knew that “The Fever” was getting to something. All of which says to me, the show works. It gets you to think.

“The Fever,” produced by 600 Highwaymen, runs through June 10 in the Kimmel Center’s SEI Innovation Studio below the main floor, Broad and Spruce streets. The show is part of the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts, running at various venues through Sunday, with a street fair on Saturday. For all events: 215-893-1999 or kimmelcenter.org.  



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