One Flea Spare
A Modern ClassicBy Fred Choi
ASSOCIATE ARTS EDITOR
One Flea Spare
Kresge Little Theater
May 2-4, 8 p.m.
Written by Naomi Wallace
Directed by Daniel Alexander Jones
With Anand D. Sarwate ’01, Virginia L. Corless ’05, Camillo R. Guaqueta ’03, Masha Kamenetska ’05, Daniel F. Kanamori ’05
In its current incarnation, One Flea Spare, a powerful, challenging play, finds itself in very capable hands. The play, set during the Great Plague of 1665, concerns a wealthy couple, the tyrannical William Snelgrave (Anand D. Sarwate ’01) and his unloved wife Darcy (Virginia L. Corless ’05), whose 28-day quarantine in their boarded-up house is almost complete.
Their quarantine is extended for an additional 28 days when two vagrants, the heroically stalwart sailor Bunce (Camillo R. Guaqueta ’03) and a knowing 12-year-old girl named Morse who claims to be the daughter of a similarly wealthy but deceased couple (Masha Kamenetska ’05), invade their home in the night. Rounding out the cast is Kabe (Daniel F. Kanamori ’05), the bored and often crude guard assigned to watch the Snelgrave house.
Inspired by the L.A. riots of 1992, Wallace tweaks classic desert island and love triangle clichÉs into tense scenes which exploit all the possible permutations of the five characters and examine cultural as well as deeply personal themes. Yet to say that Wallace’s play merely explores issues of class division and gender relations would be to completely discount the intense emotions in the work. Wallace beautifully expands the paradoxical conceit of “The Flea,” a poem in which Donne says that a flea should be spared because his blood and the blood of his beloved become mingled and married within its body. Each scene is as richly layered and double-edged as Donne’s poem.
Wallace explores the ways love, death, disease, and class interact in, for example, the simultaneously amusing and foreboding scene in which Snelgrave takes delight in “throwing History temporarily off course” by forcing Bunce to take a break from cleaning the floor and wear his shoes, made of fine “gentleman’s” leather. The director and the superb cast, all uniformly attuned to the material, do well in highlighting these conflicting dualities of the play. The entire cast has the emotional involvement and the concentration to pull off these complex scenes, and the monologues are often mini-showstoppers.
Yet the cast falters somewhat in the opening scene to Act II, in which Darcy flirtatiously asks Bunce for details about his previous relationship with a young boy. Corless successfully captures Darcy’s coyness and growing arousal, but the scene doesn’t begin to explore Darcy’s sexual desperation, her disgust at Bunce’s homosexuality, or her own feelings of lustful self-degradation.
Likewise Sarwate fully captures Snelgrave’s jealousy and lust for Bunce in the scene in which he asks Bunce for details about how the sailors relieved their “primal urges” at sea, but elsewhere represses his jealousy and lust so much that it is undetectable. Guaqueta’s good-natured Bunce doesn’t capture the hardened, disillusioned side of the sailor, nor does Kanamori’s Kabe suggest the character’s sadistic ruthlessness so much as his boredom and unflagging opportunism.
Finicky criticisms aside, the ensemble as a whole excels in their roles, particularly Kamenetska in the manic, mysterious role of Morse. Kamenetska’s portrayal suggests an exquisitely drawn, grotesque Goya caricature. Kamenetska’s dynamic, foreign Morse isn’t so much a girl of 12 as Ophelia’s half-mad sister, with her wide, flashing eyes; hushed whispers; and feigned innocence. When Kamenetska as Morse plays with her cloth-and-stick dolls, one is tempted to cross himself, and when she babbles ecstatically about birds and angels without feet one finds himself searching the corners of the stage for huddling masses of frightened Puritans.
The production does its best to clarify the important parts of the musically poetic text, which is often as dense as Shakespeare’s. Wallace’s onslaught of motifs and symbols is disconcerting, and at the beginning of the play Jones effectively complements the text with clear Brechtian gestures. The gestures are accompanied by almost overly careful enunciation from the ensemble. The total effect of this stylized presentation is the appropriate, tableau-like quality of each of the episodes. It is a pity that these gestures aren’t continued or used consistently throughout the rest of the play.
In the end, the audience is left with a horde of questions about possible interconnections between scenes in the highly complex play. Perhaps it is just as well that Jones’s production doesn’t fully illuminate Wallace’s text. One Flea Spare is clearly a play that deserves multiple readings and viewings, and certainly no production could completely portray all of its delicious complexities. The director and ensemble’s presentation of a fair number of its complexities, as well as the consistently outstanding set design, certainly make this production of Wallace’s fine play more than worthwhile as it is.