A Plague on Your Upper Houses
What's a nice socialist playwright like Naomi Wallace doing in Coral Gables? Getting a crackerjack production of her play at the New Theatre, that's what. Wallace's 1996-97 Obie-winning play One Flea Spare, is about class struggle, bubonic plague, and biting poetry, hardly the usual ingredients of polite Sunday matinees or comfortable weekend theater soirees, but who's complaining? The Kentucky-born London-situated playwright, who just won a MacArthur genius grant, is not on the usual roster of popular-but-dull dramatists whose works are too often put on in South Florida. Hurrah for the New Theatre for bringing her work here.
One Flea Spare (the title is from the familiar John Donne poem "The Flea") takes place over several weeks in an upper-middle-class household in 1655 London. Into this dwelling steal two unlikely wayfarers, one an otherworldly twelve-year-old girl, the other a young sailor on the run from the authorities. They encounter the owners, William and Darcy Snelgrave, a childless couple, with whom the newcomers find themselves quarantined during an outbreak of the plague. Having trapped these four characters, who under normal circumstances would never have met, the play then throws them together in a kind of metaphysical waiting room in which they battle out issues of power and social class, sex, love, and, of course, death.
According to the program notes, the Black Death, which in 1655 killed nearly twenty percent of London's population, is thought to actually have been several different diseases spread in part by fleas; in the Donne poem, the blood of a flea unites two lovers because it has bitten each of them. Make your own connections, or let Wallace make them for you. The much-lauded playwright, who turned the 1996 Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville on its head with this work (it premiered in London the year before) may not yet be deserving of the plaudits that keep falling her way. Reviews of recent productions of her works Slaughter City and The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek, in Boston and New York, respectively, suggest that while she's more provocative than your average ambitious scribe, she's still maturing as a dramatist. Nonetheless unlike most of her contemporaries, Wallace defiantly turns her back on realism, opting instead for a kind of spiky, ragged poetry.
"What are you doing out of your grave?" demands young Morse (Ursula Freundlich) of a rag doll she finds on the floor. "Whose blood is on your sleeve?" And so begins the story. Morse identifies herself to the owners of the house she's entered through the casement window as the daughter of the family next door. William Snelgrave (David Alt), however, replies that he thought the entire family had perished. So when Morse describes the scene beyond the house walls in a startlingly articulate manner -- noting that the city was so hot that "vegetables stewed in their own crates ... rats drank sweat from our faces ... sparrows fell out of the sky into the hands of beggars" -- she jumps into a hybrid role of narrator, idiot savant, and ghost. William's wife Darcy (Lisa Morgan) sees the girl as a mere child. She tells Morse they will love her "as one of our own," but love hardly conquers what soon befalls the Snelgraves.
The trio is joined by Bunce (Israel Garcia), an arrogant sailor who, having twice been pressed into naval service against his will, is now anxious to avoid its hardships. He also seeks refuge in the Snelgrave house, crawling in through the same window that Morse found. Bunce isn't otherworldly in the way of Morse. Instead he is a representative from the working class, a universe that the Snelgraves consider far below their own rarefied existence. It's through Bunce that Wallace gets off her shots at rich landowners and the gentry everywhere. Quizzed by the Snelgraves, Bunce recites details from his life as an indentured servant in the merchant marine. In the play's most transparent scene, he engages in a socialist pantomime with William Snelgrave that begins when Bunce tries on the rich man's shoes.
"Something terribly strange has happened," says Snelgrave of the costume change, noting that "historically speaking the poor do not take to fine shoes." When Bunce wonders what would happen if he kept the shoes, Snelgrave answers, "I'd go out and get another pair." To which Bunce comments, "Then we'd both have a pair." Snelgrave, by now the obvious mouthpiece for the uncaring moneyed class, announces, "How would people then tell our feet apart?" Thanks to seamless performances by Alt and Garcia, there's more legitimate tension between Snelgrave and Bunce than the playwright actually earns.
Wallace is far too anxious to tear apart the class barriers (and in her other plays, gender differences) that separate her characters, though few playwrights have done so in more evocative surroundings. Only Caryl Churchill's 1976 work Light Shining in Buckinghamshire so marvelously limns the Twentieth Century through a seventeenth-century lens. In real life, however, death is oblivious to one's bank account. That's not the case with this playwright. Her rich folks don't stand a chance. Much more interesting is the sexual tension between Bunce and both of the Snelgraves.
With a pattern of revelation that borders on Gothic, Wallace lets us find out why Darcy Snelgrave keeps her hands and throat covered. (It's not because she's hiding the black pockmarks left by the plague.) We also see Bunce allow Darcy to clean out the never-healing wound in his side with a sexual forthrightness that's touching in every sense of the word. Director Rafael de Acha manipulates the actors so that their characters intrude on one another's personal spaces with astounding impropriety. A scene in which Bunce uses an orange to explain to the prurient William Snelgrave how he satisfied his sexual urges while at sea is particularly cunning.
Indeed de Acha wisely responds with greater effect to Wallace's poetry than to her half-baked politics. (Must the rich white guy always be the bogeyman? Are the poor always blameless? I'm in favor of socialist causes but this scheme is far too easy.) The result is a production that's equal parts chilling and beautiful, as visually searing as it is dramatically inventive. Theatergoers are no less likely to forget the first image of the Snelgraves as they appear on stage, framed by ghostly backlighting, or the way Darcy stares into a candle flame as she describes a long-ago fire that wrecked her life, than they are to hang on to Wallace's searing dialogue. Doug Molash's austere scenic and lighting design and Marina Pareja's period costumes are essential to the story and truly wonderful.
David Alt and Lisa Morgan, who head up the New Theatre cast, prove once again why they are two of the best reasons to go to the theater in Miami. Newcomer Ursula Freundlich has the difficult job of playing a character who is ethereal but whom we must not perceive as precious. The confident and appealing actress, a junior at Carnegie Mellon University, does a marvelous job. As Bunce, Israel Garcia must play the character on whose head falls the political impact of the play. He gives a performance more complex than what the playwright intended. I'm not convinced that Wallace has much more on her mind than the notion that the poor shall inherit the Earth. But with an actor like Garcia in the role of Bunce, I can almost overlook the cliche and happily give him the keys to the Snelgrave estate.
One Flea Spare.
Written by Naomi Wallace. Directed by Rafael de Acha. With Ursula Freundlich, Israel Garcia, David Alt, and Lisa Morgan. Through July 25. New Theatre, 65 Almeria Ave, Coral Gables; 305-443-5909.
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