Sheila Callaghan's 'Fever/Dream' at Woolly Mammoth

By Alex Baldinger
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 5, 2009

The 17th-century Spanish playwright Pedro Calderón de la Barca died quite a number of years before such terms as "wage freeze" and "unprofitable asset" entered our daily lexicon; the birth of the corporate takeover was still a few centuries off.

But it's a Calderón monarchy-in-transition morality play, "Life Is a Dream," that serves as the template for "Fever/Dream," a world-premiere adaptation by playwright Sheila Callaghan being staged at Woolly Mammoth Theatre. At the center of the production, which wraps up previews Saturday and runs through June 28, is Bill Basil, an aging corporate magnate, and his quest for a successor.

"I was trying to make a parallel to a man running an empire in today's world, and the way I was able to find my footing in that was to use the model of a corporate dynasty rather than a monarchy," Callaghan said by phone from Los Angeles, where she is a writer for the Showtime series "United States of Tara."

"It just made perfect sense that the business would also be failing under his leadership. What I didn't expect was that the entire world would be resonating with this same kind of corporate failure in its own models."

It's a fortuitous bit of luck that has Woolly Mammoth mounting Callaghan's play at the same time the corporate world is in turmoil. When artistic director Howard Shalwitz chose "Fever/Dream" in January 2008, few could have predicted that conglomerates the world over would now be mired in many of the problems facing the protagonist's Basil Enterprises.

"Sheila often is capturing generational issues in her plays. She's very interested in voices, the zeitgeist of the culture," Shalwitz said. "But then, with the change of the climate, this notion of collapse and the stakes of the play suddenly [became] much higher.

"It's tricky, because you don't want to do cheesy, ripped-from-the-headlines references. You have to find a way to get them in the play that's really authentic to the story that's being told."

Callaghan, 36, made several changes to her script to weave the collapse of the global economy into the corporate ascent of Bill Basil's banished son, Segis (Daniel Eichner).

Segis -- an unkempt, basement-dwelling customer-service drone who pushes staples through stacks of paper with his thumb and eats loose macaroni and lettuce delivered through a tube -- ends up being elevated to head of the company by the very father (Drew Eshelman) who exiled him after being born the same day as the largest one-day stock market crash in history.

Segis inevitably fails at his new position and is sent back to his basement dungeon. His brief stint as CEO was a dream, he is told, and the one-way lifelong struggle between father and son continues.

"Calderón wasn't necessarily concerned with relationship drama," Callaghan said. "He was more concerned with the philosophical drama that he poses at the center of the play, which is how should one behave if life is not reality? And why would one choose to act justly if all of life is actually a dream?"

Callaghan's script is rife with surrealist imagery, from talking portraits to heavy-metal interludes and offices that spontaneously become flooded with seltzer water. After Shalwitz went through the script of the two-act play, his list of stage directions ran almost five pages. His solution was to keep the set simple, allowing the audience's imagination to run wild.

"The play is a monster in a way, if you think of all the special effects that it calls for. You read it and you sort of go, 'Well, this is unproduceable,' " Shalwitz said with a laugh. "It's been a lot of fun, and there are still some puzzles we're working out."

While Callaghan has seen a confluence of real-world events and theater work in her favor on this occasion, she has also seen the other side of the coin: A New York theater was set to produce another of her plays, "Lascivious Something," but it canceled the production for financial reasons.

"It's kind of ironic that I'm benefiting from this story of America and the world at the same time I'm suffering from it," she said.

Fever/Dream Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW. 202-393-3939. Through June 28. $26-$60.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company