nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 21, 2008
Dave McCracken's new play Fever is an ambitious and thought-provoking philosophical drama; its deep probing of the essential nature of humankind surprised me and made a significant impression.
That's because it starts out feeling like a gay-themed melodrama, albeit one inspired by a classical source (Philoctetes by Sophocles). Atrox, a brawny, charismatic military commander, arrives on a remote, desolate island with the much younger Virtus in tow; Virtus is a soldier and devoted follower of Atrox. Atrox explains that this island has but one inhabitant—Bonitas, a soldier and former ally who was brought here after he received some incapacitating wounds. Atrox now believes that he needs Bonitas to rejoin him, and he tells Virtus that it is his duty to convince Bonitas to do so. Specifically, he explains that Bonitas is sexually aggressive and lustful, and urges the young and handsome Virtus to seduce Bonitas in order to achieve his ends.
This first scene of Fever is, well, pretty feverish: the homoeroticism isn't merely suggested but pretty brazenly drawn out, not only in Atrox's words but in his actions (he strips both himself and Virtus to the waist and does some heavy massaging on Virtus's bare shoulders and chest). But it turns out that the play's title does not refer to the heat of sexual passion. McCracken has something quite different on his mind.
For what follows is a journey through, first, the metaphysics of free will (Bonitas and Virtus, left alone by Atrox, debate the nature of the choices that Bonitas has made and will make vis-a-vis Atrox and the rest of mankind); and then, in the play's denser second act, the nature of good and evil and how organized religions affect and influence those ideas. The arguments are heady and fascinating and inspiring. Virtus comes to understand that Bonitas and Atrox are eternally antagonists to one another, and that they are not in fact men but something else. Who or what each member of the audience will eventually conclude they are—gods? Christ and Lucifer? constructs inside Virtus's head?—is going to prove to be a very personal dilemma. It is greatly to McCracken's credit that he takes us through such a difficult and fundamentally unsolvable problem with as much insight, clarity, and elegance as he does.
Fever is fascinating and important, but flawed: McCracken's at his best when the dialogue is contemporary and direct, but sometimes he veers off into more classically-inspired language that he's not as comfortable with; there's also a fair amount of repetition that could be excised to tighten the piece up. And I think that the initial scene (and the show's publicity campaign), which suggest that Fever is a play about three hunky guys locked in sexual combat, does a disservice to the valuable and profound concepts that the drama is really trading in—particularly since, once the debate heats up in Fever's second half, it is thoroughly compelling all on its own.
McCracken has directed his own play on a modest but very serviceable set within the intimate L'il Peach space. The three actors work hard, with Miguel Belmonte clearly the standout as Bonitas; he brings real conviction and passion to the arguments of this figure who would like humankind to always follow its finer impulses. Rick Lattimer does a good job showing us Virtus's confusion as he tries to comprehend the forces that have seemingly made him their pawn. Gregory Thornsbury is less effective as Atrox, however, failing to deliver a character as outsized and well-defined as Belmonte's; this throws the balance off as the two vie for Virtus's allegiance and—perhaps—his soul as well.
The ending McCracken gives his play feels a little subversive, but it's also timely and resonant. I hope I won't give too much away when I say that it urges each of us to be true to our better nature and to do the right thing always because we must (as opposed to doing the expedient thing because we can). The deep inwardly-directed thinking that Fever pushes its protagonist through is potent and necessary stuff; the ideas contained in this surprising play make it well worth the time of a theatre-goer in search of some intellectual stimulation.