Back Door Theater, 4319 SE Hawthorne, 230-2090, Thurs-Sat 8 pm, closes Dec 17, $8-15
The endearingly dowdy actor Wallace Shawn (Vizzini in The Princess Bride) also finds time to write the occasional play. A sophisticate himself, his goofy looks and cartoonishly squeaky voice belie a mistrust of his own intellectual prominence, a contrast frequently reflected in his dramatic works; Shawn's best plays are about affluent people at odds with their own affluence.
Of these "liberal guilt" scripts, the best may be the one-person effort, The Fever, now being performed at the Back Door by actress and native Iranian Afsaneh Boutorabi. It features a nameless, genderless individual with a Wallace Shawn-ish love of arts and culture, who finds themself in a war-torn country rife with political persecution, vomiting on the bathroom floor of their hotel as an execution occurs outside the window. A hallucinatory stream of personal anecdotes and philosophical diatribe ensues, always revolving back around to the painful differences between the rich and the poor, and the system that exists to keep both in their respective places.
It goes without saying that the content of The Fever is as relevant as ever, and with her close ties to the Middle East, it's not hard to see why Sowelu Ensemble was interested in bringing Boutorabi's rendition to the Back Door. But in performance, Boutorabi, never moving from her chair or even completely dimming the house lights, seems afraid to ruminate, instead racing, at times breathlessly, on a zigzag journey between opulent dinner parties and graphic depictions of torture. During the ugly parts, she gets loud and teary-eyed; during the pretty parts she gets quiet and introspective; but each shift feels like a programmed beat, like she is reciting written material and not struggling with a growing sense of painful self-awareness. Failing to connect with the audience (perhaps intentionally), Boutorabi comes across as an upper-class loon, babbling to herself in an armchair in her reading room. But to make The Fever's protagonist simply crazy is to make it easy on him/her, whose struggle is grounded in pure sanity: It is an endlessly growing, crippling clarity of the comfort they've been granted, and the sacrifices the rest of the world endures to make it so.