note: entire contents copyright 2001 by Beverly Creasey
Naomi Wallace's seductive drama about kindness and cruelty in plague-ravaged London is getting an impressive outing at New Rep this month. "One Flea Spare" is set in 1665 when a sailor and a little girl seek refuge in an abandoned house. What they don't know is that the master and mistress of that house are still there --- and quarantined ---so the four are trapped together in two rooms while a greedy watchman keeps them under lock and key.
Haddon Kime's haunting original music sets the tone for the play: a clavichord sounding like a medieval lute is overlaid with eerie broken chords warning us we're about to see a chilling story of survival.
The play begins and ends with a harrowing account of the plague....as "visitation" of unnatural proportions ---- and playwright Wallace places her ornate descriptions of the terror (like sparrows falling from the skies dead) into the mouth of a babe, specifically the girl who sneaks into the house unseen (for the moment) by the guard. The child "with the breath of an angel" has nerves of steel and proves to be another kind of angel at play's end.
Mr. Snelgrave, the quarantined master of the house, angrily calls the plague "God's wish" but he's far more concerned with worldly matters (such as the "baser instincts") than he is with religion. He's consumed with curiosity about the sexual habits of sailors. Indeed everyone in Wallace's world trades treats for sexual favors from the child. (This is a child "schooled at keyholes" who knows how to barter.) In an exquisitely touching scene, the sailor offers mercy and sexual healing to the scarred and neglected mistress of the house. Wallace juxtaposes tenderness and horror to vivid effect (when the sailor makes gentle love to the mistress while telling her about the pain he's witnessed at war.)
Director David Wheeler's cast puts human faces on Wallace's poetic ideas (of class struggle, for example)....so we care about the wounded and physically scarred wife of the high and mighty Mr. Snelgrave. Stephen Mendillo personifies arrogance as the master who thinks he can play games with his housemates and win. Robert Parsons brings a sweet nobility to the compassionate sailor, and James Berrier will give you the creeps as the watchman who delivers news and contraband to his prisoners. Eliza Rose Fichter is mesmerizing as the child at the heart of Wallace's universe. The eleven year old Fichter manages humor and pathos with the aplomb of a seasoned actor -- and she can rattle your bones with the words "What are you doing out of your grave?"
Emily Dunn's costumes are the perfect mix of brocade and filth (except for the torch costume: the hat looks like a pieplate full of SOS scouring pads awaiting some elbow grease). Richard Chambers' spare setting (hinting at the walls of a house, hinting at contents) lets the relationships take center stage. John Ambrosone's dusky lighting suggests the heavy, polluted air of 17th century England.