In Naomi Wallace’s spectacular and award-winning One Flea Spare, ably directed by Caitlin McLeod in an exceptionally rendered production at the Sheen Center, everyone dies – eventually. This is one of Wallace’s marvelous ironies. In this intricate and complex production she highlights the irrevocable truth that mortality comes for all of us whether with spectacle, gore, or grace. It is how one engages and responds to death that makes the contradiction of living daily in death’s shadow fascinating and sometimes humorous.
Wallace creates characters that are admirably recognizable yet unique within their stereotypes of wealthy and lower class. The play investigates an intriguing idea: individuals from different social strata are quarantined in an elegant London home during the plague of 1665. For the wealthy, the contagion of death, like war, is a matter of dread, doom, and loss. But for the lower strata who have little to lose, it is an opportunity to escape from class oppression and possibly to advance.
As the play progresses, an amazing dynamic among the characters is revealed, pitting the serving class against the wealthy and revolving their foibles, furors and soul terrors against the backdrop of the historic pestilence. The scourge knew no class or economic boundaries and symbolized the plague within the human soul, the absence of love and what that absence foments. Wallace confines disparate classes together in a small space and time, setting them to act and react upon each other. Inevitably, the ones who have the longest relationships are the most brutal because of their unresolved hells, hurts, resentments, and failures to forgive.
Historical social shifts occur from war, famine, and plague, reducing the wealthy to the same plane as the poor when fortune’s wheel stops where no one anticipates. Wallace has fun with this theme when the witness to the events, Morse (an extraordinary, sustained, authentic performance by Remy Zaken), narrates what happened after she entered the Snelgraves’ luxurious mansion posing as a member of the elite to gain shelter. She is followed by another fugitive from the plague, Bunce, a sailor once pressed into the Royal Navy (the measured, cautious, and quietly powerful Joseph W. Rodriguez). The wealthy scion and his wife receive Morse as “one of them” but reject Bunce and force him into a servant’s position, to which he succumbs as a matter of habit and tradition. In a humorous irony Bunce’s gentle good manners are the antithesis of William Snelgrave’s boorish behavior as a pompous, effete, and cold-hearted ass.
The wealthy Snelgraves (Gordon Joseph Weiss and Concetta Tomei shimmer with frosty power, emotional pain, and steely bitterness) are too late to escape to the country as most of their class did. They acknowledge death from the bubonic contagion as a creeping irrevocable horror once the black boils harden, burn, fester, and bleed, covering the victims’ bodies. It has happened to their servants, who died lunatic, befouling themselves in the mansion’s rooms, bacteria-laden save two that have been sterilized. In the kitchen and another room William and Darcy Snelgrave confine themselves in fear, awaiting release from quarantine by Kabe (Donte Bonner in a near-perfect portrayal), the wily, sardonic, ferociously opportunistic lower-class guard who monitors quarantines and plague victims, tallies the bodies, buries the dead, and runs food errands in exchange for jewels and gold coins.
As they run out the 28 days of quarantine, history rudely moves along a bumpy track for the Snelgraves. They are unable to rely on the strength of their (now dead) as a solid foundation upon which to stand. (This is Wallace’s ironic warning to the elites of the present day). The Snelgraves, who once lived in extravagant luxury, are reduced to a near-impoverished state: a few sticks of wooden furniture to sit on (for fear of the contagion in the furnishings), a meager food supply since London trade has ground to a halt, no one to cater to their every whim, and the graceless indignity of being oppressed and incarcerated by Kabe, whose dark comic humor as a gatekeeper of death they do not appreciate.
When the lower classes represented by Bunce and Morse intrude, the world completely upends for the Snelgraves, though initially the wealthy couple believes Morse is who she says she is. Cleverly, Morse reveals her economic station much later, but by then Wallace has employed Morse and she becomes the catalyst, the flea who bites them and changes all of their lives emotionally and psychically.
For Morse – the flea is a major conceit of John Donne’s poem “The Flea” which Wallace references throughout – the Black Death is inconsequential. That’s another irony, for she is the carrier but does not succumb to death. She has experienced and witnessed the abuse of underlings like herself and her mother, the latter having been callously left to die of the black terror alone, locked in a root cellar. In a supreme irony, her mother’s death is followed fast by the death of her abusive Lord Master, her Mistress, and their dying daughter Lisa, whom Morse comforts. The only one to escape is the lowly Morse and it is obvious her experience of death and the plague has transformed her and given her a leaden invincibility, beautifully portrayed by Zaken.
Indeed, because Morse has has nothing left to lose, she is the freest, most genuine and clever of the characters. They never “see her coming,” so Morse ironically has her way with them. This revelation about Morse explains how and why her precocious questions and suggestions invariably hit their target and set the Snelgraves’ relationship whirling to the opposite ends of the universe, while Darcy and Bunce find themselves spinning toward each other in a love dance which salves both of their souls. Their sexual power plays and conflicts tweak the myths of the upper and lower classes in humorous dark ironies beautifully constructed by Wallace, portrayed to the max by the actors, and well shepherded by the director, Caitlin McLeod.
The script’s incredible word-craft lures us with grotesque, highly imagistic descriptions. Each of the characters speaks poetic descriptions and all of the actors master this poetry and song with rhythmic cadences that grip the audience and make us focus on the beauty of the language.
The ironic themes Wallace alights upon are numerous, but the essential one is the ability of humans to sustain great periods of wretchedness, whether spiritual, psychic, physical, or emotional. When prompted by the “flea” Morse, the catalyst, the depth of the characters’ emotions which have been hidden and repressed pour out in a flood that either heals and redeems or ultimately destroys.
In a final humorous twist of the Donne poem, Wallace has Morse provide the way to enlightenment and salvation for all the characters; she offers an occasion for them, including Bunce, to demonstrate a new visceral love for each other. Morse the “flea” has bitten each and now commingles their blood in her actions and comments. The irony of the title, its reference to the major conceit and humorous meaning of the Donne poem “The Flea” and the flea as the carrier of the contagion, is absolutely smashing. And McLeod has unveiled all of this with every jot and tittle of the staging, costumes, sets, and music. What a heavenly, brilliant production of a great play. I just loved it.
You can see One Flea Spare presented by Playhouse Creatures Theatre Company in this 20th anniversary production at the Sheen Center, The Black Box Theater, 18 Bleecker Street, NYC. The play has one 15-minute intermission and runs about two hours. Performance dates are from Wednesday through Sunday until November 13, 2016. Click here for tickets.