If Angels in America, given magnificent voice by Forum Theatre last year, showed us what love in the age of plague was like, Naomi Wallace’s One Flea Spare shows us plague spread out on a loveless plain, where pain thrives in the absence of mercy. Another way to say this is that One Flea Spare is a play about a month spent in Hell; it is a hell of a play, and Forum plays the hell out of it.
We are in London. It is probably the 1664-1665 plague year, although we are given no specific date. The city is deserted, except for the dead and dying; those kept prisoners in their homes for fear of contagion because someone has died in the house; and their jailors. William and Darcy Snelgrave (Andy Brownstein and Nanna Ingvarsson) are two of the prisoners, and Kabe (David Winkler) is one of the jailers.
England’s rulers, who knew everything about the Bubonic plague except what caused it and how to stop it, have decreed that any house in which the plague has claimed a life would be boarded up for four weeks, and its surviving residents confined there for that period. The Snelgraves – he is a merchant prince, who owns half the London dockyards, and she is his dreadfully unhappy wife – are near the end of their sentence when two refugees from the spreading death, the sailor Bunce (Davis Hasty) and twelve-year-old Morse (Sarah Taurchini) independently break into their house. Kabe sees them, and the house arrest is extended for another twenty-eight days.
The confinement gives William Snelgrave an opportunity to reconsider his smug Calvinistic assumption that his wealth is a sign that God favors him over common men like Bunce. Snelgrave rails against the Levelers, a long-gone British social movement that called for recognition of the equality of man and for tolerance of religion. But Yersinia pestis is a much more efficient leveler than John Lilburne ever was. William decries the fact that the plague has closed down the merchant trade – which made him a king and which keeps Bunce in wretched servitude – but he knows that this is only a harbinger. Restricted to the two rooms uncontaminated by prior death, the Snelgraves and their unwelcome guests soon embark on an equally-unwelcomed intimacy, and, in so doing, become more transparent to us. William invites Bunce to wear his fine shoes while assuring Bunce, inexplicably, that he will never wear shoes like that. Bunce, literally and figuratively, learns to walk in William’s shoes and the relationship is altered irreparably.
The wealthy couple has an insatiable desire to know details (particularly sexual details) about the lives of commoners; and Bunce is happy to encourage William’s wild imaginings about shipboard life (the dockyard magnate, being prone to seasickness, has never put out to sea). But the flow of details goes in every direction, and we learn the secret behind Darcy’s constantly-gloved hands; of Morse’s true origins; and of William’s unspeakable cowardice. The separation between master and servant dissolves, as do the inhibitions upon which English society depended.
In Angels, the dissolution of these barriers opens the door to love and redemption, but in the morally desiccated landscape of One Flea Spare, it ushers in the war of all against all, where only the feral survive. In mid-17th century London, it is the most clever and ruthless, those least inhibited by morality or convention, who triumph.
This is not to be for the Snelgraves (for a clue to their fate, remember that “snel[l]” means “haste” in German) but it is for the young Morse, an agile confabulator, and Kabe, who would sell anything but his principles, as he has none of those. Morse tells the story that makes up the play, apparently under duress, in a series of flashbacks. Director Alexander Strain underscores them with a wonderfully dramatic use of light (Cory Ryan Frank) and sound (Elisheba Ittoop). Indeed, sound is so vital a narrative instrument that it seems that Ittoop almost deserves a writing credit (Ittoop also composed the delightful period music).
Strain also did a great job casting the piece. Brownstein is a large man, and his physicality gives William an authority which might not otherwise be clear to a modern audience from the text. Taurchini, a Synetic regular, gives Morse a stunning physical agility which helps us to see the child’s agile mind. Winkler appears to have a special instinct for snarky characters; his Kabe is corrupt, but he makes him almost appealing in light of the larger corruption that is the play’s London. I had some difficulty understanding some of Bunce’s lines, but Hasty inhabits him fully, and makes him believable at every step. And as for Ingvarsson, she is good in everything she does.
Look, I know that some reviewers have panned this production. Don’t listen to them, listen to me. This play has won the Kesselring and Susan Smith Blackburn Prizes, and Wallace has gotten a genius grant from the MacArthur Foundation. Go see this play, and if you think I steered you wrong I invite you to write bad things about me in the comments section below. (This offer not open to other reviewers or their immediate families.)
Housekeeping matters: David Winkler has written reviews for us during the 2009 and 2010 Fringe Festivals. Hunter Styles, a regular contributor to DCTS, was the co-producer of Forum’s Naomi Wallace Festival. None of this had any effect on the objectivity of my review.
One Flea Spare
by Naomi Wallace
Directed by Alexander Strain
Produced by Forum Theatre
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Running time: 2 hrs, 15 minutes with one intermission