Theater review: A haunting ‘One Flea Spare’

Naomi Wallace's potent play at Shaking the Tree brings a surreal and gorgeous plague upon a house

Since seeing it on Saturday, I’ve been haunted by both Naomi Wallace‘s writing and Shaking The Tree‘s production of One Flea Spare. Spectral expressions of the characters are seared onto my eyes; portentous poetic lines ring in my ears. In many plays, you get either taut dramatic tension and politically charged commentary, or heady poetics, romance, and tenderness. Very rarely can you enjoy both in one long, intimate sitting. That’s probably why this two-and-a-half hour epic flies by, and then ceaselessly replays in my mind. Director Samantha Van Der Merwe felt the same way upon reading Wallace’s indelible script: “It stays with me, and comes to me at different moments in my day.”

Kayla Lian and dolls. Photo: Jack Wells

Kayla Lian and dolls. Photo: Jack Wells

 

Historical Premise, Universal Theme

Four people are quarantined in a London house in the throes of the bubonic plague: nobleman homeowner Snelgrave (David Bodin), his wife Darcy (Jacklyn Maddux), and two interlopers—furloughed seafarer Bunce (Matthew Kerrigan) and 12-year-old girl Morse (Kayla Lian)—who’ve snuck into a house they thought was abandoned, only to get locked in with its imperious owners. We’re about to learn a lot about these characters. For instance:

One’s youth has been destroyed by a devastating fire. One’s currently nursing a large, self-inflicted wound. One’s endured a lifetime of beatings. One harbors deep prejudices and secret sexual desires.

The looming threat of the Bubonic plague, and the historical trappings of its place and time, may initially seem arcane and unrelatable. Town watchman Kabe (Gary Norman) keeps the foursome on lockdown per emergency orders, and stalks the streets, jeering about crumbling class distinctions. He sings broad Cockney folk tunes  that, in the spirit of Ring Around the Rosie‘s commonly accepted (if not historically ratified) double meaning, allude to disease and death. All characters are on high alert for signs of infection, checking each other for the coinlike welts that appear on the body without warning, swabbing their floors with sanitizing vinegar. They’re taking unusual measures in extraordinary times.

That said…the theme of sequester transcends any one historical event. When strangers are locked up together and left to their own devices, they tend to get pretty creative within the usual range of predictable human behaviors. One never knows who will lead, who will crack, who will bond. Even now, a slew of reality shows rely on this very premise, as do zombie apocalypse scenarios and prison dramas. It’s perennially fascinating to see what trapped people will do when their only entertainment—their only escape—is each other.

Two of Flea‘s characters experiment sexually. Two form a parent-and-childlike attachment. Two face off in a power struggle. One shows a talent for survival and barter, but eventually goes marginally mad.

Powerhouse Performance

Most of these events are pretty engrossing, but even if they weren’t…the performances are perfection. Lian is feverishly exquisite: her nimble movement and enraptured face are ethereal pleasures in an otherwise dark tableau. Kerrigan is brooding and magnetic, speaking in a sensual, rounded Scottish brogue. His manner is habitually humble—surprising for a pirate, but appropriate for Wallace’s reluctant buccaneer. Bodin and Maddux each perform their roles, and their relationship, with a conflicted complexity. The Snelgraves strive to maintain the haughty airs befitting their station, but gradually succumb to their various human impulses. The text again challenges one’s assumptions: rather than becoming unstuffy for the first time, they’re unveiling their pre-existing wild sides. Darcy returns to the heated exploits of her youth, while Snelgrave escapes into long-held (if ill-informed) adventure fantasies. The cast’s star quality overwhelms Shaking The Tree’s small room. In her fiercest moments, Maddux’s clenched jaw and watery eyes conjure Dame Dench. And, forgive me, Kerrigan is a ringer for a young Johnny Depp.

Gary Norman is the watchman. Photo: Jingzi Zhao

Gary Norman is the watchman. Photo: Jingzi Zhao

 

Lovely Language

“The breath of a child has passed through the lungs of an angel.”
“My mother smelled like lemons because she was always afraid.”
“The rats are eating at the silks.”
“My heart dissolved like a wafer.”
“They stir their soup with our bones.”
Holy hell, this script is poetic. What more can I even say?

Adult Content…in the truest sense

Are any two words more often misused than “adult content?” It seems we tack them onto anything sexual, even the most puerile, simplistic “f*ck-and-suck” scenarios. But the category would certainly apply to the steamier scenes of this play, which are sexual in the most adult way possible. Where young sex revels in innocence, beauty and indulgence, truly “adult” sex holds undertones of sacrifice, compromise, physical imperfection overlooked in favor of fondness. This is the understanding that resonates in comedian Louis C.K.’s Chewed Up. It also explains why films like The English Patient aren’t considered porn. Anyway, I may have aged five years just watching Flea‘s emotionally charged petite mort—and amazingly, I’m okay with that.

In Summary

Betraying its minuscule name, One Flea Spare could hardly be more gorgeous, absorbing, surreal and profound. I was gobsmacked. You’ll be floored. Catch it. Please.

*

One Flea Spare continues through March 22 at Shaking the Tree. Ticket and schedule information here.

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A. L. Adams also writes the monthly column Art Walkin’  for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly magazine. Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch | The Portland Mercury
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