Sunday, October 12, 2008

Secrets yearning to be told in One Flea Spare

Sage Theatre's recent production of Naomi Wallace's One Flea Spare is a darkly poetic look at society stripped of its conventions, where the laws governing wealth, class, and sexuality are obliterated and reinvented.

Set in London during the Black Death, the play uses the bubonic plague that ravaged society as a leveler of class distinction. The mansion in which the pompous William Snelgrave and his emotionally-starved wife Darcy have been quarantined for the past 28 days may serve to give them a layer of protection from the infected paupers who are dying in the streets, but it cannot inoculate them from their own diseased marriage. Mere days before their scheduled release from quarantine, their prison/fortress is breeched by two strangers - the disturbing and impetuous Morse, an adolescent girl offering tales of escaping from beneath the corpses of her parents after they died within their own mansion, and the impoverished sailor Bunce, bringing with him his own tales that have an unsettling impact upon those to whom he tells them.

When the presence of the intruders is discovered by the jovial yet sadistic guard who has been ensuring that the Snelgraves do not escape their quarantine and who is their only conduit to the outside world through the single small window left unsealed in the house, an additional 30 days is added to their confinement.

What follows within the confines of the house is a lyrical unfolding of role reversals and deeply buried secrets unearthed, as the mores of society are stricken down.

As with each new Sage Theatre production, I was very curious to see how the theatrical space had been reinvented for this intimate and spare play. And of course, it being Sage Theatre, I was not disappointed. Set in the round, within a backdrop of heavy black curtains cascading behind the surrounding seats, the small stage area was bare but for two chairs and a window frame. The red stylized embers criss-crossing the black floor and curtained ceiling were the only embellishments of colour in the space.

The characters in One Flea Spare are trapped, not quite in the world of the living and not quite in that o
f the dead. In a city where human life has been completely devalued, the characters are forced to examine whether they have devalued their own lives through their past evils, and whether their spirits are not in fact more dead than alive.

The touchstone of this is the sailor Bunce, nursing a wound in his side which will not heal. His presence brings to a head the simmering infection between the Snelgraves, and his interaction with each of them is cathartic, albeit in vastly differing ways. Despite the stigmata he bears, he is no Christ figure, he merely draws out what is buried deep within the others. For the repressed and disfigured Darcy, this manifests itself in a yearning for long-abandoned human contact and sexual release. For the pompous and cruel William, the sailor's stories unearth his own depravity and soullessness.

When Morse, the creepy little English kid, asks in the opening lines of the play "why are you out of your grave", it is uncertain whom she is addressing. By the play's end, we have come to understand that she
is confronting all the characters (and perhaps the audience), as well as acting as a harbinger of events about to unfold.

Each player in Sage Theatre's season opener of One Flea Spare turns in a solid and commendable performance, but it is perhaps Lauren Parken's understated portrayal of the tragically repressed Darcy and Chad Nobert's highly nuanced Bunce who are the most compelling. They impart their respective characters with complex humanity, making utterly believable the success with which they
succeed in breaking through the boundaries of convention, and with which they ultimately bestow dignity upon their situations.

Since circumstances forced me to see this Sage Theatre production of One Flea Spare near the end of its run, you are no longer able to take in this performance. And this is a shame, as it was a deeply compelling and well executed production.

The next Sage Theatre production will be The Attic, The Pearls, and Three Fine Girls, running November 13-22, 2008.


Joe said...

Sounds very, very good. I'll have to read it.

Gifted Typist said...

Great review.

Sounds like a fascinating premise and as you were describing it I imagined the spare black backdrop that you went on to describe.

When I lived in England, I was never able to shake the deep abiding fear of infectious disease ripping across the island nation. How would one get off?
Well, you can imagine the emails I had from English friends when months after my return to Canada, SARS broke out in TO.

justacoolcat said...

Very cool. Still, I can't help but wonder about some of those English names . . .

Bridget Jones said...

sounds very worthwile! Thanks for the great review.

BeckEye said...

Yeah! Where do I sign up for this laugh-a-minute romp?

(Actually, it sounds very intriguing, I'm just being an ass.)


Dang! I would have loved to see that! What a great review!

I had it all planned to get theatre season tickets this year and then that nasty little thing called paying tuition for my lovely offspring came up...

Barbara Bruederlin said...

It is a very good play, Bubs, and very well produced as well. Do you often read plays? I can't say that I ever do, to tell you the truth.

I imagine everyone thought you had brought SARS with you, Gifted. I think the British Isles setting is part of the reason that a film like 28 Days Later plays out so well. That feeling of island claustrophobia is strong in One Flea Spare too.

I know, JustA! You'd think Nigel was bad enough.
Snelgrave, though, I thought could be fitting, the first syllable sounding very close to the German word "schnell" or "quick". Quick grave - very prescient.

Very worthwhile, Bridget! And it was my pleasure.

It actually had moments of considerable humour in it, Beckeye. And for the record, it is your assholery that makes you so adorable.

Kids! Can't live with em, can't shoot em.
It's a shame you did not see this, Urban Blonde, but the season is far from over. And Sage Theatre really has very good value for their season ticket prices.

Toccata said...

Gosh, that sounds like such an intriguing play.

Hey there Gifted Typist I live on an Island! I do not need one more thing to worry about besides when the earthquake is going to get us!

mellowlee said...

Wow, seems like an amazing production! I really enjoyed your review. Perhaps not quite the kind of show I should be seeing right now, but you say there is a book? I should check it out.

mellowlee said...

Oh, I read that wrong. I am guessing there's no book....

Gifted Typist said...

didn't mean to worry you toccata - it would be much easier to escape your island, me thinks

Allison said...

Live theatre is always a good time. This play sounds quite interesting, indeed. In a few weeks I'm set to go to the Stratford Festival, which I am greatly looking forward to.

Sean Wraight said...

Hello Barb,

Naomi Wallace has a very 'imagistic' way with words and I would be intrigued to see how the stage adaptation handles her particular style.

Live theatre can be such a great treat when the subject matter is so challenging and this certainly fits that bill.

Excellent review Barb. Very thoughtful and informative.


Barbara Bruederlin said...

It was rivetting, Toccata.

I think there is a book of the play itself, Mel, but not a novel. Don't quote me on that though.

Nice damage control there, Gifted.

I haven't been to Stratford in years and years, Al. I need a lowdown on what you will be seeing!

That's very kind of you, Sean.
I agree that Wallace's words are full of imagery - very poetic - and I think this production really did them justice by keeping the set sparse and letting the words take the forefront.