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Review: FEVER DREAMS (OF ANIMALS ON THE VERGE OF EXTINCTION) at the Contemporary American Theatre Festival

A Vivid Contemplation of Sex, Lies, & Consequences.

By: Jul. 15, 2023
Review: FEVER DREAMS (OF ANIMALS ON THE VERGE OF EXTINCTION) at the Contemporary American Theatre Festival  Image
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We live in a world where secrets and lies occupy an entire spectrum, from well-intended (or well-guarded) to the darkest, most cynical kinds imaginable.  And for all our efforts to protect our loved ones from the harsh realities of life, and to cover for our misdeeds past and present, we all live in fear that somehow, the one thing we cannot bear to tell others is revealed—and when the big reveal comes, we must cope with the heavy, heavy price for what at first seemed like such a reasonable, meaningless moral compromise.

Jeffrey Lieber’s Fever Dreams (of Animals on the Verge of Extinction) is a study in tragedy of an all-too-human scale; infidelity, secrecy, lies used to cover for passion, more lies used to cover the consequences of that passion, all so intricately constructed that the heart-breaking reality, when it finally dawns on us, strikes like a streak of lightning.

And there’s some awesome acting along the way, and quite a lot of humor.  It’s not a matter of doom-and-gloom-from-the-tomb, because along the way there is room for humor, and self-deprecation.

At the core of the action is a love triangle, in which we assume (at least initially) that the cheating wife has kept her guilty secret well hid.  Adele, the naturalist whose knowledge of the twisted ways different species adapt to survive, has herself adapted by keeping an old lover on call for decades.  Zachary, her guy-on-the-side, works long shifts at an emergency room and (seemingly) rarely has time for relationships of any kind.  His mountain cabin has become a semi-secret retreat where he and Adele can keep the flames of their passion for each other alive, and rather vividly so.

Adele’s tactic of role-playing-as-foreplay seems a bit on edge, however—when we first meet Zachary, arriving and unpacking groceries in the cabin, we find Adele holding a pistol to him; later, we find that Adele is dealing with some major trauma, the nature of which involves her husband Miller and Zachary in unexpected ways.

The threesome of Adele, Zach and Miller could, by rights, explode into horrific recrimination and/or suicide; Lieber refuses to provide us with such a pat resolution to the issues these three characters confront.  Instead, we are given an opportunity to examine ourselves, and to consider what happens when our own lies catch up with us.

Marika Engelhardt is the heart and soul of the production, with her manic need for sexual fulfillment coupled, inevitably, with grief and guilt at what she has done to both of the men in her life.  As her lover Zachary, Tim Decker cuts a tall, handsome figure, caring but also with an unmistakable selfish streak, which arguably sets the whole story in motion. 

As Miller, the cheated-on-husband, Stef Tovar brings a surprisingly amiable aspect to what by rights should be a hell-bent-on-revenge role.  His restraint, when he confronts Zach, doesn’t become clear until much later; and his awkwardness with a pistol (it’s his, of course, not Adele’s) actually lightens the action considerably.

Misha Kachman’s set is a classic, wood-toned, rustic hideaway, and together with Mary Louise Geiger they create a truly spectacular view of Fall foliage through the large upstage windows.  Linda Roethke, meanwhile, captures the spirit of late-20th century cool with the cast’s costumes—jeans, leather jackets, and tastefully-designed underwear (there’s nudity and partial nudity here, in keeping with the cabin’s function as a place of assignation).

What makes this production truly special, in addition to its stand-out performances, is the venue where it is being performed.  One of the great (re-) discoveries for this year’s Contemporary American Theater Festival is a charmingly intimate performance space on Shepherdstown’s main street:  the Opera House. 

As diminutive as its name is grandiose, theaters like the Shepherdstown Opera House were built across the country in the 1800’s, symbolizing a community’s coming of age.  Truth be known, the capacity for this house is relatively limited; but although the passing of time has enabled this town to build much larger venues, the Opera House has a charm and an acoustic warmth that should endear it to actors and audiences alike for years to come.  It is the perfect place for exploring the more profound mysteries of the human species.

Artistic Director Peggy McKowen has wisely chosen “Fever Dreams” as the Festival’s first offering here.  Its themes of lies, the good reasons for those lies, and the inevitable fallout when those lies are revealed, are nicely deployed in this setting, and another sign of the versatility and community outreach that is the hallmark of McKowen’s vision for the Festival.

Production Photo:  Tim Decker and Stef Tovar (foreground, in shadow) in the world premiere of Fever Dreams (of Animals on the Verge of Extinction) by Jeffrey Lieber at CATF in 2023. Photo by Seth Freeman.

Running Time:  2 hours with one Intermission.

Fever Dreams (of Animals on the Verge of Extinction) runs as a part of the Contemporary American Theatre Festival, through July 30 in the Shepherdstown Opera House, 131 W. German Street, in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.


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