One Flea Spare
Cast fails to find the sparks that make this class-conflict study fire
Published: May 4, 2011
One Flea Spare
By Naomi Wallace
At the Strand Theater through May 7
You can understand why the Strand Theater chose to end its 2010-’11 season with Naomi Wallace’s One Flea Spare. Wallace is a gifted playwright; she has won an Obie Award and a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Fellowship, and Center Stage’s world-premiere production of her Things of Dry Hours was a highlight of the 2006-’07 season. The 1995 One Flea Spare is perhaps her best-known play, and it offers the promising premise of four people trapped inside a London home during a 17th-century plague with a local thug posted outside to make sure they don’t escape until they’ve gone 30 days without showing any symptoms.
But this production, directed by Strand founder Jayme Kilburn, never quite grasps the show’s potential. It’s not that the actors lack intensity, for they snarl, moan, taunt, seduce, and accuse quite vividly. And because the actors could easily leap into the lap of any audience member in this small storefront theater, where the stage is a rectangular island surrounded by a close reef of chairs, that intensity is doubled. What the actors lack, however, is a sense of self-awareness; their outbursts all seem to spill from an unconscious id.
There are plays where that approach would work, but Flea is not one of them. Wallace’s dialogue is so self-conscious, so obviously the result of art rather than instinct, that it requires the same self-awareness from the actors—and that’s what’s missing. They’re all energy and no reflection.
When Snelgrave (Frank Vince) starts baiting Bunce (Sean Coe) about his days as a sailor, it’s obvious from the carefully constructed language that this attack has been premeditated and is not just coming from off the top of his head. It’s a game that Snelgrave plays for his own amusement, to wring perverse pleasure out of his status as a wealthy aristocrat compared to Bunce’s status as a floor-scrubbing servant. But Vince plays the scene as if the attack was a spontaneous eruption, creating a disconnect between the words and the delivery.
Snelgrave and his wife Darcy are prominent members of London society and the British government, but in the anarchy of the plague they have been forced to stay in their home for 30 days to prove they’re not contagious. A few days before their term is up, two strangers—Bunce and the 12-year-old girl Morse—invade the house, and when Kabe the guard discovers them, he declares that they might be carrying the infection, so the 30-day clock must start again. The Snelgraves, Bunce, and Morse are isolated in the quarantined house like the schoolboys of Lord of the Flies on their island—with similar results.
Darcy, her fortysomething body buried beneath three dowdy dresses and black velvet gloves, hasn’t had sex since she was badly burned in a stable fire at age 17, and her suppressed desires are soon focused on Bunce. Actress Natalia Chavez Leimkuhler is good at revealing Darcy’s desire but less convincing at showing the tension between her lust and her upper-class scruples. She never seems to be thinking about what she’s doing; she’s just doing it, and that’s out of sync with Wallace’s wordcraft.
Morse, a redhead in a thin white dress and long johns, starts spouting wild poetry such as, “I can smell your heart. It’s sweet. It’s rotting in your chest.” As Morse, Mary Myers is a live wire who leaps about the stage like an alley cat, but she never gives any indication that it might be unusual for a 12-year-old servant girl to talk like this; she gives no hint of an ecstatic trance or wonder at her own words.
As Kabe, Alex Hacker is a tall, bald hooligan with jug-handle ears and a malicious grin out of A Clockwork Orange. He crouches in the crawl space above the Strand’s front door, as if guarding the entrance to the Snelgraves’ home, and he scoffs at their pleas for escape. His arrogance is impressive, but he never shows the doubt or restraint that keeps him from robbing his helpless prisoners, so you never understand why he feels forced to negotiate with them.
As a result, the most convincing character in the show is the dark brown wooden cane carved in the shape of a cobra. At first, it’s carried at a jaunty angle by Mr. Snelgrave, a symbol of his power and position. He’s not reluctant to use the cane to poke at uncooperative servants or to threaten an unfaithful woman. When it slips from his possession into another’s grasp and is used to poke and threaten in a different direction, the wooden walking stick tells us more about the power dynamics in this play than all the overwrought monologues combined.
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