With a keen eye for the outlandish, playwright Sheila Callaghan (“That Pretty Pretty; or, The Rape Play”)is an obvious catch for D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theater, which next season celebrates 30 years of convention-defying stagecraft. “Fever/Dream” is Callaghan’s absurdist take on the 17th century play “Life Is a Dream,” by Spain’s Pedro Calderon de la Barca. Given maximum manic treatment by director and Woolly a.d. Howard Shalwitz, it exudes the kind of infectious zaniness that occasionally attracts cult followings.
How’s this for being in the moment? A badly managed company is about to go belly up, throwing its dedicated employees onto the streets. Meanwhile, an interoffice romance is played out in frantic X-rated text messages displayed on a screen like a stock ticker. A sudden job opening in customer service is posted on Craigslist.
These are just some of the topical embellishments to a 370-year-old play that now begins in the basement of a modern office tower, where a solitary and bedraggled individual is literally chained to his desk, answering incessant phone calls from angry customers and apologizing in studiously earnest tones. Occasionally, scraps of food are dropped from above and instantly devoured.
He is Segis (Daniel Eichner), Calderon’s Segismundo, whom we later learn is the imprisoned son of the company president about to be summoned to take over the firm, an assignment for which he is woefully unprepared. Segis is interrupted by a bicycle messenger and her companion, who had pressed the wrong elevator button.
The encounter sets in motion an antics-laden treatise on corporate leadership unveiled in high-camp mode around the character’s brief and disastrous tenure at the top, his reincarceration and assurance by his handlers that it was all a dream. Subplots include a romance between two executives aspiring for the top job, one of whom is pursued by his jilted lover posing as that bike messenger (a scrappy Kimberly Gilbert).
Eichner is entertaining throughout as the morose prisoner and liberated autocrat ready to gorge on food and sex. Others in the solid cast include Drew Eshelman as the bumbling president so eager to abdicate, Kate Eastwood Norris and KenYatta Rogers as the incompetent executives, and Michael Willis as the twisted jailer.
The 18-member troupe, largest ever for Woolly, includes 11 young dancers who appear throughout the play, their routines choreographed with engaging impishness by Meisha Bosma. Especially enjoyable are their turns as corporate accountants attired in vests and green eye shades by designer Franklin Labovitz.
The satire is played out on an appealing set by Misha Kachman. An open stage transforms quickly from dreary dungeon to modern executive suite, surrounded by three skyscrapers toppled over like tipsy soldiers. A cramped elevator is at left to figuratively whisk riders to the two extremes. Artfully lit by Colin K. Bills, the set is embellished by Evan Martella’s colorful video designs and Veronika Vorel’s myriad sound effects.
It’s Shalwitz’s incessantly over-the-top staging that drives this play, even more so than Callaghan’s generally crisp dialogue, which is enjoyable in its parody but in need of belly-laugh humor. For some, the incessant hijinks will grow tiresome as the parody theme is mined. But the evening is filled with nice touches, especially the opening with Frank Sinatra crooning Johnny Mercer’s gentle “Dream.”