A window swings open. A wiry, crumpled figure flounces into its frame and lurches onto the stage, veiling her face with her petticoat. Out of the silence and flickering candlelight leaps the terrified—and terrifying—voice of a young girl: “What are you doing out of your grave?”
A door creaks ajar on the other side of the stage, and through it staggers a man, who promptly finds a vase and pisses into it. He’s in the throes of drunken relief when the owners of the vase (and the house) barge in. He is caught. And so is the girl, who has revealed her sallow little face and emerged from the shadows.
The year is 1665, and the Great Plague is ravaging the streets of London. In the home where we are stationed, the servants have already died from the plague, with its blood-choked phlegm and rotting pustules. Only the heads of house, William and Darcy Snelgrave, remain. Our intruders are wayward, wounded sailor Bunce and wanton 12-year-old Morse. Minutes after they have all discovered each other, a city guard, Kabe, comes by to board up the house’s exits and effectively quarantine them. And thus we are introduced to Naomi Wallace’s morose One Flea Spare.
The action of the play occurs in one room—the only room in the house no one has died in thus far. It is apparent from the paranoia of our captives and the songs of our meandering guard, who rhymes about festering bodies and tainted riches piling up in “the pits,” that few will escape the plague. The four characters are reluctantly and indefinitely trapped with one another, but their chances of survival are probably better as prisoners than they are on the streets.
Though deeply lyrical and sown with both humor and tragedy, the script is frenetic. Poetics are rolled out in wave after wave. They are equally lovely and disturbing, but they aren’t always granted the pacing they require to sink in. The audience is left with words that should be haunting but are somehow hollow.
The storyline is hard to follow at times, and the play itself feels like it never truly lifts off. Here we are, voyeurs in one of the grimiest, deadliest periods in human history. The plague is at the doorstep, wiping out millions, and arrested inside this room are a sailor with nothing to lose; a seemingly orphaned child; and two people who have witnessed the excruciating deaths of those who served them. This is an emotional cauldron. But the narrative lacks build and complexity. Instead, the characters go through the motions, delivering eloquent prose that isn’t impactful. Whether this is due to the choices of the playwright, the director or the actors is hard to tell.
It is apparent from the paranoia of our captives and the songs of our meandering guard, who rhymes about festering bodies and tainted riches piling up in “the pits,” that few will escape the plague.
That said, there’s still plenty to see. The audience is divided on either side of the stage, which is mainly composed of a solid wooden floor that’s abutted on one end by a window and on the other by a door. The set is well-conceived and polished. It’s spare—there’s not much more than a chair, a couple pillars and some candlesticks—but it makes sense within the context. The house has been emptied and cleaned to keep disease from spreading, and the room feels intentionally naked. Likewise, the costumes and makeup are a snug fit: Dingy and tattered, the look feels just right.
The best parts of the play come in the actors’ performances. Despite the problems with the script’s pacing, the actors are earnest and fluid. Tabatha Shaun shines the brightest as the impish and frenzied Morse. Shaun masters a balance between Morse’s brazen self-interest and innocence. Morse owes her life to her tooth-and-nail demeanor. She’s treacherous, turning on the other characters at whim, but she’s also a child who has watched those around her drop like flies. She’s frightened and, as a result, lost in her imagination. Shaun is able to carry the delicacy of such a character. Shaun’s also sprite-like in her twists and flips around stage, and it’s a delight to watch some of the gymnastics she unleashes.
Barbara Geary makes a strong contribution as Darcy Snelgrave, a mournful woman who was robbed of her youth—and her husband’s lust—when caught in a fire at the age of 17, two years after their marriage. Her face is the only part of her body that escaped unscathed, and she half-shrouds herself to conceal her disfigurement. The high point of the play is Darcy’s retelling of the night of the fire. The barn had started to burn, and she ran to it to try to free her horse, which had been given to her as a wedding gift. “A horse on fire,” she whispers, “in full gallop. ... It would have been beautiful, but for the smell.”
Joseph West is an endearing Bunce. He cajoles and torments, but in the end he makes for the most likable character. Though Bunce tells horrid stories about his time at sea and the murders committed by him and his crew, West is always able to get the audience back on his side. Played by John Wylie, William Snelgrave is uptight but desperate for a taste of salt air and abandon. He hounds Bunce with questions about a sailor’s life, obviously conflicted by his own demons. Wylie fills him out well.
Shangreaux Lagrave, who embodies the guard Kabe, gives an admirable performance. Kabe is a mischievous minstrel, a peddler, a lascivious snake. But he is also a playful respite from the weight of the show, as when he appears in nothing more than a pair of beige boxers with a pail strapped to his head (filled with charcoal, to “keep the bad air” at bay). Lagrave walks the line between scoundrel and comedian convincingly and effortlessly.
One Flea Spare isn’t an uplifting tale. But it’s also not a downer. You may have to gulp a couple of espressos to keep up with the stream of prose, but there are some well-crafted moments of pleasure to be gained from this brooding work, if you’re willing to do a little sifting.