One Flea Spare

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Editorial Review

Theater review: Forum Theatre's dismal 'One Flea Spare'

By Peter Marks
Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Although it has been described as a black comedy, Forum Theatre's "One Flea Spare" is hardly what you'd call a barrel of laughs. The setting is a quarantined home in the London of 1665, when bubonic plague was ravaging the city and the survivors were resorting to desperate measures to keep the terrifying illness at bay.

Dramatist Naomi Wallace narrows her focus to the besieged household of William Snelgrave, a petulant businessman played by Andy Brownstein, whose servants have already succumbed and who, with wife Darcy (Nanna Ingvarsson), has been confined to quarters by the authorities. Into the house sneaks a pair of urban refugees, an enigmatic 12-year-old (Sarah Taurchini) and an injured sailor (Davis Hasty) looking for a roof under which they, too, can wait out the pandemic.

Wallace's concern here in tossing together these haunted souls does not conform to standard-issue melodrama. She's exploring in a highly stylized manner the foundations of a social and political order and the ways in which a breakdown reveals the nature of people at various levels of the established hierarchy. Given the doomsday backdrop, the premise holds out the promise of a powerful unraveling of secrets and the conjuring of invigorating truths about characters facing unendurable pain.

Which, unfortunately, never occurs in this puzzlingly lifeless play, presented with respectful, dirgelike portent by director Alexander Strain. He has on hand good actors, who struggle to inject feeling into the playwright's overworked and image-drenched dramatic language. Its attempts at wit feel like the opposite of effortlessness. The sluggish evening advances only tentatively, as if we're riding in a riverboat meticulously carving out a new channel through sheets of ice.

"One Flea Spare's" metier is death or, more to the point, decay. Society, civility, empathy - they're all evaporating, along with the people, whose sore-covered bodies are carted day and night to a communal grave called the Pit. Wallace, who is also a poet, stuffs the piece with references to insults to the flesh of all varieties. We learn, too, of the deformities and the festering wounds of the house's survivors, especially the endless torment of Ingvarsson's Darcy, who was painfully disfigured in a fire years before and ever since has been an object of disgust to her insensitive husband.

The paradox of the sickness is that its fairly egalitarian spread is reordering social behavior, so that now, finally, Darcy, in her attraction to Hasty's virile Bunce, can experience a sexual reawakening and, for the first time, declare her grievances. The resentments of a rigid class system are also coming into the light, as exemplified by the pleasure in his work taken by the corrupt Kabe (David Winkler), the snickering guard posted outside the Snelgraves' residence.

The production is staged on a wooden platform in Forum's Silver Spring space and successfully conveys the rank bleakness of the living situation; the soiled costumes by Heather Lockard hang with a look of such realistically limp dampness that you wouldn't be surprised if the actors had been living in them around the clock.

The actors themselves may struggle at times with their London accents - some of them seem to fade away after intermission - but their commitment to the story is unassailable. Ingvarsson is always a pleasure to watch, and here she invests Darcy with an affecting humility. Brownstein adds to callous Snelgrave the proper dashes of entitlement and oafishness. Transporting us back to the 17th century is not the easiest leap for an actor, and under Strain's guidance, the entire ensemble manages pretty well to fend off the encroachment of contemporary mannerisms.

It's the mannered script that accounts for the rather dreary effect of "One Flea Spare," a grim night about a grimmer calamity.

One Flea Spare by Naomi Wallace. Directed by Alexander Strain. About 2 hours 20 minutes. Technical director, Patrick Wallace; fight director, Cliff Williams; costumes, Heather Lockard.