Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone have the piercing eyes, determined step and insistent voices of illuminés, people possessed by an inner light. If you catch their gaze during The Fever, where they sit among the audience that encircles the stage, you will certainly find yourself drawn into their vision, taken by the hand, and led into a silent dance in the middle of that circle. Others may join you. You might catch a falling body, or help others pass one high above your heads. You might stand tightly together. You might run and others may follow you. You might begin to feel part of the nameless, purely-and-simply-human community that Browde and Silverstone, theater artists who go by the name 600 Highwaymen, build slowly from a thread of story and a faith-healer’s way of getting people to trust them no matter what they do.
This young couple wears its own faith on its sleeve: a faith in people, in humankind, in humanly minded people who hold each other up and make it possible to bear or celebrate what life brings. The company’s presenting partners include two Protestant churches, and 600 Highwaymen’s shows are probably the closest you can come to experiencing communion, however you want to define it, in the downtown theater scene. The Fever is the company’s third work to be presented at Under the Radar, following The Record (2014) and Employee of the Year (2016). Back in 2014, Meiyin Wang, UTR’s co-director, described the company for me as “actually under the radar” but three years later the festival seems to be under Browde and Silverstone’s spell, which is earning them invitations from around the country and Europe now as well. Their success may not be of Biblical proportions, but it is remarkable for a company that proposes togetherness in the place of cool.
It sounds so simple, even hokey. On the contrary, their work is bold and daring in the sense that what they propose runs counter to the rule of the day, where nothing currently seems sure, not even the values of our democracy, where the pressure to succeed is more intense than ever, when criticism, shaming, and misinformation are so easy to spread with a Tweet. Browde and Silverstone’s answer to that, in The Fever, is to throw us a party, where people are just happy to see each other, everyone has a good time, and no one is left out. They invite us into a family that nurtures each other in the most basic and profound ways. They show us a community where neighbors come out into the street to offer help and to remind each other that they are there. And they get us off our chairs to see each other and support each other, literally, as a physical act, and in this way to connect with a hard-wired respect we share as humans for each other’s presence.
This is theater in its original sense, as a ritual that taps the sacred and the profane, the essence of human existence. There’s nothing to intellectualize, only a feeling that builds in intensity. You either go with it or you don’t but you can never just stay in your seat. The premise might make some people uncomfortable, although it didn’t seem to pose a problem at the performance I attended, where a few spectators were almost overzealous participants, with one in particular throwing in some dramatic flourishes and once even trying to direct the action herself.
I don’t think Browde and Silverstone minded, however. Perhaps that woman caught the “fever” the show alludes to, or rather creates: the irresistible vitality of being alive in community. If that is 600 Highwaymen’s mission, their moment – at this precise juncture in our country’s life – has arrived. But the most wondrous thing of all is that it feels as if these illuminés always knew it would.