Hunger Artists Concoct a Fascinating Brew of Sex, Death and Disease in 'One Flea Spare'

The Plague Years
Hunger Artists concoct a fascinating brew of sex, death and disease in One Flea Spare

Naomi Wallace is one of the finest American playwrights to emerge in the past 20 years, yet she’s also criminally underrepresented on stages large and small. No surprise, really: Her sharply politicized, darkly provocative plays are smart, lyrical and supremely well-crafted. In others words, they’re not a good fit for theaters worried about reaching the broadest possible audience base.

But for a theater that doesn’t mind starving for its art from time to time, Wallace is a great fit. Case in point: the Hunger Artists’ current production of her 1997 Obie Award-winning One Flea Spare.

Set during the summer of London’s 1665 Great Plague, the play features four characters quarantined in a once-fine house that has been reduced to a sparsely furnished room and an unseen kitchen. Two characters belong there: the wealthy, pompous William Snelgrave and his wife, Darcy, who have been locked inside for 24 days so the local authorities can ensure they’re not infected.

Two are trespassers: a mysterious, wayward sailor, Bunce, and his equally mysterious, 12-year-old, female companion, Morse. The street-savvy duo think the Snelgraves’ home is empty and break in to escape the pestilence that’s doing cartwheels on London’s miserable streets. Unfortunately, they’ve broken into a cell.

Once the local guard, Kabe, finds out the home has been broken into, he boards it up even tighter, and all four occupants must stay another 28 days.

There’s enough dramatic grist in that setup to sustain an entire play. But Wallace didn’t win an Obie solely because she spun a good yarn. She uses the claustrophobic, hyper-paranoid situation to explore class conflict, sexual identity, politics and economic exploitation in both 17th-century England and late-20th-century Western society.

And she does it by never explicitly saying so. Much like a Harold Pinter play, Wallace’s deals with the subtext. Those looking for easy answers about what the characters want, who they are and what the play means will be disappointed. This one takes a little work on the viewer’s part; if you don’t mind getting your hands dirty, it can be fun rooting around in Wallace’s play to find the truffles.

Her style isn’t the only thing Wallace shares with Pinter: There’s a palpable sense of menace hovering over One Flea Spare, the unsettling feeling that, at any moment, things can explode. The trick in the writing is to keep the kettle constantly on the edge of boiling.

This MaryAnne Mosher-directed show gets a great deal of that mood right. It’s a heavy, creepy play: Death, disease and decay fill the atmosphere, and the characters revel in all sorts of perversities, from women who are turned on by sticking their fingers into gaping belly wounds to men who get off on hearing what sailors do with their foul, fleshful instruments during those long months at sea.

But it’s also disarmingly well-written. While characters talk about sins great and small, they do so in richly poetic ways. Even when they’re calling one another sluts and whores and talking about their pricks or buggering a fellow seaman, they do so with verve and panache.

It’s a very word-heavy play, and Mosher seems to know this, as there is very little eye candy in terms of set, audio or lighting effects, and overtly stylized staging. That’s good: Wallace’s words are delivered clearly and forcefully, the directorial imperative in a play like this.

Less effective is the use of the space—it just feels too large for a show that is so claustrophobic—and there are some slight holes in the cast. While Brenda Kenworthy’s Darcy is finely measured and deeply scarred, Ryan Miller’s Bunce is edgy and crafty, and Parker Morrisson’s Morse is terrifically damaged, Anthony Galleran is both too young and too physically imposing for the character of William Snelgrave, an old pervert easily overpowered by two starving refugees and his wife.

And Ian Roland’s Kabe seems like some peeping Tom who just wanders by from time to time in order to get his kicks, rather than the combination of jailer and potential savior he truly is. There is a lot more that can be done with this role.

Those missteps aside, this remains a strong, faithful production of a fascinatingly disturbing play by a playwright who says more in two hours by not saying it than many playwrights say in an entire career.

 

One Flea Spare at Hunger Artists Theatre Com., 699-A S. State College Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 680-6803; www.hungerartists.com. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. Through Sept. 20. $15-$18.

 
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