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 of 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.