“Corruption is our only hope.” — Bertolt Brecht
by Monica Charline Brown
Playhouse Creatures Theatre Company has brought One Flea Spare out of the shadows of a twenty-year hiatus from New York City. Originally commissioned for London’s Bush Theater, American playwright and poet Naomi Wallace premiered her play in 1996 at the Humana Festival of New Plays at the Actors Theater of Louisville, receiving the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, Joseph Kesserling Prize and Fellowship of Southern Writers Drama Award. The Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival was the next chosen venue in the same year. Notable international honors include insertion into the permanent repertoire of France’s National Theater, where Wallace is the only American aside from Tennessee Williams with this privilege; the play has also joined the permanent repertoire of Komorní scéna Aréna in Ostrava, Czech Republic.
Director Caitlin McLeod scales down the sensations of an epic play to the intimacy of the black box of the Sheen Center beautifully. All four sides of the stage feature seating, varying from one to three rows, allowing actors to both explore in the round and mingle with audience members. In the second act, Donté Bonner (who embodies the flamboyant but foreboding guard named Kabe), even plopped into an empty seat beside me as we watched a scene together. The approach of making eye contact with the audience, especially executed by Bonner and cast member Remy Zaken, connects and communicates the text directly in a palpable and powerful way.
One Flea Spare embarks on the height of the Great Plague of London, the final epidemic of bubonic plague in England. Wiping out nearly a quarter of London’s population in a mere eighteen months, the plague was spread by bites of infected rat fleas. Twelve-year-old Morse (taken on by the captivating Remy Zaken) and escaped sailor Bunce (played by the ominous Joseph W. Rodriguez) have snuck into the Snelgrave residence. Mr. and Mrs. Snelgrave (Broadway veterans and masters of their craft, Gordon Joseph Weiss and Concetta Tomei) are a wealthy couple boarded up in their home. Because they did not escape like most of their mercantile colleagues, they are quarantined to the only two rooms not infected with deceased, plague-ravaged bodies. While preparing to abscond, equal parts heart and reason lead the Snelgraves to take in the two refugees.
Over a period of twenty-eight days, the foursome ultimately realizes what is more terrifying than even death: connection. Visions of morality are muddied, emotional barricades are toppled over, and the roles of oppressor versus oppressed are turned upside down. In the flames of awakened apathy, the Snelgraves perish and the expatriates get away, not untainted by the darkness.
In the Playbill, the time is listed as 1665 and now. Clearly evidenced in this grave yet witty drama, does it not seem that plague can be offered up as a metaphor, as it has been historically in stories for millennia? Primeval drive to instigate destruction is contrasted by Wallace’s gorgeous and striking heightened language.
Bryce Cutler’s scenic design balances detail and simplicity in a handsome marriage to Aaron Porter’s complex and layered lighting design. Mar Van Hare provides the soundtrack of the narrative with adroit sound design and cello-rich composition. The costumes of Sarafina Bush, neutral and deep hued, masking elegance and poverty, along with the properties of Megan O’Leary, provide an equilibrium of contemporary and period style. In roles often unsung, but deserving recognition for great work here, were Dialect Coach Paul Ricciardi and Fight Choreographer Jesse Geguzis.
One Flea Spare is truly a masterpiece. Every element of the production exhibits unspoiled harmony. Make sure to catch this round of performances lest it be another twenty years before it’s presented again!
One Flea Spare. Through November 13 at the Sheen Center (18 Bleecker Street). Run time: two hours with intermission.www.playhousecreatures.org
Photos: Monica Simoes