The plague's the thing in perplexing psychodrama at AT
IT'S A TIME-HONORED, peculiarly theatrical formula: you take a handful of strangers, a colorful assortment of types, and toss them into a confined environment for a long period. After they bicker and flirt and form alliances, they will ultimately (hopefully) tear one another to pieces.
Naomi Wallace's Obie-winning play One Flea Spare sets up the same Survivor-esque scenario--four people quarantined together in a boarded-up London house during the plague of 1665. But the playwright is clearly not interested in formulaic storytelling. Wallace uses the familiar setup as a launching pad for something loftier, simultaneously deconstructing the play's premise as she turns it into a series of lyrical and brutal Rorschach tests that seem certain to suggest different things to different people.
The result, currently onstage in Santa Rosa in an Actors Theatre's production directed by Brian Newberg, is both poetic and perplexing, often exhilarating--especially in the unconventional beauty of Wallace's dialogue--and frequently repellent.
William and Darcy Snelgrave (played by Allan Armstrong and Kimberly Kalember) are wealthy Londoners who've just been released from a 28-day quarantine of their home after their servants died of the plague. Before they have a chance to flee the city, however, their house is invaded by two intruders: Bunce, a foul-mouthed sailor (energetically embodied by Argo Thompson), and Morse, a beautifully dressed 12-year-old girl (Veronica Pesek and Rose Kleiner, alternately) who says she's the daughter of dead aristocrats.
The introduction of newcomers into the Snelgrave residence brings down the quarantine police, and the house is boarded up once more. Everyone has a story to tell and secrets to hide, and before the boards on those doors are lifted, some of these people will be dead--and not necessarily of the plague.
Actors Theatre's matter-of-fact staging of the play, like the play itself, has its strengths and weaknesses. A hard show for any cast, Flea is emotionally demanding and jaw-droppingly brutal, subjecting its actors to a whole catalog of onstage humiliations, including masturbation, urination, and one pivotal episode of drooling. The Actors Theatre cast, uniformly good at playing out the story's icky extremes, seems, on the other hand, to be oddly overwhelmed at other times, as if still unsure of some of the material.
Not at all subdued is Steve Howes in the play's smallest role of the bullyish Kabe, a loutish, half-demented ruffian recruited to guard the houses in the Snelgrave's neighborhood. Whether singing, flashing, or prancing half-naked with a plate of coals on his head (yes, you read that right), Howes is mesmerizing.
In the part of Morse, Kleiner (who handled the part the night I saw it) shines whenever called upon to be eerily precocious, as when Kabe crudely exposes himself to the girl and she brilliantly stares him down. "So you're a man, then," she wryly observes. During her narrative moments, however, Kleiner seems overwhelmed and fails to believably give life to Wallace's words.
As Mr. Snelgrave, Armstrong has a masterful way with a withering stare and an expressive voice that he uses to layer on emotions, burying the sound of rising panic just beneath a cracking crust of snide condescension. Kalember plays the wounded Mrs. Snelgrave with a different kind of crust--a bitter hardness that melts spectacularly during one movingly manic-depressive sex scene.
'One Flea Spare' continues through April 7 at Actors Theatre, Luther Burbank Center, 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa. For details, call 707/523-4185.
From the March 15-21, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.