Theater Review: Sheila Callaghan's 'Fever/Dream' at Woolly Mammoth

Daniel Eichner's Segis is in charge (for a spell) at Woolly Mammoth.
Daniel Eichner's Segis is in charge (for a spell) at Woolly Mammoth. (By Stan Barouh)
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By Celia Wren
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, June 10, 2009

To the roster of artworks that skewer corporate and mercantile culture -- from, say, Dickens's "Dombey and Son" to "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" to "30 Rock" -- add yet another entry: Sheila Callaghan's "Fever/Dream."

Now receiving its world premiere at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, this impish reworking of Pedro Calderón de la Barca's 1635 "Life Is a Dream" tells us nothing we didn't already know. But with ace comic performances, sleek design and bracing direction by Howard Shalwitz, the telling is enjoyably stylish.

The author of such risky, visionary scripts as "That Pretty Pretty; or, the Rape Play" and the caustically lyrical "Crumble (Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake)," Callaghan here takes a more workmanlike approach, devising two-plus hours' worth of ingenious parallels with Calderón's original. A Spanish golden age classic, "Life Is a Dream" -- in brief -- tells of a prophecy-fearing king who imprisons his son at birth, lets him out briefly, then returns him to the slammer with the assurance that the furlough was a dream.

Callaghan transforms the monarch into tycoon Bill Basil (Drew Eshelman), who exiles his scion Segis (Daniel Eichner) to the putrid basement of the Basil Enterprises skyscraper. Here, living on cold noodles, the kid mans a customer-service phone line while, 77 stories above, cutthroat execs Stella Strong and Aston Martin (Kate Eastwood Norris and KenYatta Rogers) are groomed to lead the company. When Bill -- aided by the office manager (Michael Willis) -- temporarily promotes Segis to CEO, Fortune 500-style management takes a looney-tunes turn.

The ongoing economic meltdown -- in which fortunes prove chimerical, and today's Forbes-hailed titan becomes tomorrow's SEC fall guy -- might seem to make "Fever/Dream's" themes of illusions and reversals particularly topical. In fact, the play comes across as a less time-specific spoof of office life and go-go capitalism, complete with dog-eared jokes about sexual-harassment policies and color-coded spreadsheets.

So the fun of "Fever/Dream" lies in the production's antic pace and witty aesthetic. The action romps in front of skyscrapers whose disorienting angles evoke Russian constructivism and Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" (Misha Kachman is set designer) and whose facades catch projections of stock tickers, text messages and video blogs. Veronika Vorel's sound design -- sirens, elevator screeches, office-party karaoke -- is droll, while Colin K. Bills's lighting morphs from expressionistic to carnivalesque to nightmarish (the blue flickering of an unseen computer in Segis's dungeon is a particularly nifty touch).

The actors anchor these atmospherics with well-gauged buffoonery. Norris's Stella, stalking icily around in a short-skirted business suit, and Rogers's Aston, a French-cuffed scalawag, are hilarious (especially in a scene in which their characters vie, literally, for the CEO's chair). As the victimized Segis, Eichner segues deftly from dazed despair to hyperactive despotism. Willis and Eshelman are delectably schlubby and stern, respectively, while Kimberly Gilbert radiates endearing truculence as a personal assistant with a mission.

Those performers hone Callaghan's corporate lampoon so keenly that one hardly needs the ensemble of University of Maryland students executing office-minion choreography by Meisha Bosma. Now marching and checking their watches; now tapping at laptops; now robotically bending while clutching Dictaphones -- these dancers move mechanistically, in concert.

The message, of course, is that big business is dehumanizing. But Callaghan and Shalwitz have already established that point -- as have many artists before them.

Fever/Dream, by Sheila Callaghan. Directed by Howard Shalwitz; costume design, Franklin Labovitz; props, Jennifer Sheetz; video, Evan Martella. With Jessica Frances Dukes. Through June 28 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St. NW. Call 202-393-3939 or visit

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