One Flea Spare: An Honorable Defeat at the Strand
I was not familiar with the works of playwright Naomi Wallace before encountering the Strand Theater Company's production of One Flea Spare, Wallace's 1995 succès d'estime, currently in revival not only here in Baltimore but in London, where it premiered. Audiences reportedly thrill to her unabashed articulation of ideas, about which she feels greater passion than she does (or wants her audience to feel) about her characters. Unabashed idea-mongering was certainly on display in this production of Flea. I like a theater of ideas as much as the next reviewer, but found that, in this somewhat trackless waste of a play, the ideas were either inarticulately expressed, trite, or both.
Flea is set in the plague-ravaged London of 1665-66. And there (Wallace apparently thinks you will be shocked to learn) there was such a thing as social class and such a thing as male privilege. Class and gender privilege in 17th-Century England: imagine that! Not only that, but it seems that the lower classes and women suffered as a result of this system. Furthermore, hints are broadly dropped that some of these evils might apply even today!
Not exactly stunningly original in the ideas department, it seems to me. Shaw and Brecht were there first, and said it better. That is where the disengagement Wallace seems to champion between characters and audience serves her ill. It is not a capital crime for a playwright, even a playwright of ideas, to serve up thoughts that others have thought before; after all, truly new ideas are hard to come by, and the theater is full of old ones recycled endlessly. But then, especially then, engaging the audience, and doing so clearly, becomes critical.
That doesn't happen here. The set-up is that the house of a wealthy ship-builder is quarantined with only the builder and his wife inside (the servants having died) plus two stowaways, a sailor named Bunce (Sean Coe) and a preternaturally worldly-wise 12 year-old girl, Morse (Mary Myers), who is apparently the illegitimate child of a servant from a neighboring manse. The ship-builder, Snelgrave (France Vince) and his wife Darcy (Natalia Chavez Leimkuhler), have had a sex-free marriage almost from the outset, because Snelgrave is repulsed by burns Darcy sustained in a fire.
Snelgrave, as the haute bourgeois male of the piece, is of course the bad guy (literally), in many different ways. One of them is that, because of this repulsion, he cannot respond to his wife's need for touch, and for sexual release. But unapologetic proletarian Bunce can. Bunce, who in a lengthy monologue describes his forcible impressments into various navies (so many that they seem deliberately incredible like the travails of the old woman in Candide), sees the fraudulence of military life and social class the way that Shaw's Bluntschli did in Arms and the Man. Is there any kind of spelled-out connection between this life as a perpetual draftee and Bunce's willingness to meet Darcy's needs? Well, not so much, since the very point at which such a connection could be explained is punted away: When Snelgrave asks with a prurient leer how Bunce satisfied his sexual needs while off at sea, hoping for tales of homosexual encounters, Bunce intimates that he masturbated into pieces of fruit instead. Homosexual encounters would have provided the emotional resonance; human beings forced into close quarters and deprived of partners they might have preferred making do for their mutual benefit sounds a bit like what Bunce does for Darcy. Turning to inanimate objects does not.
And so it goes. Another instance: Morse's precocious sophistication makes it clear she knows precisely how to say what she wants. Yet toward the end she engages in (to me at least) incomprehensible play with voodoo-dolls or witch fetishes that is clearly fraught with meaning to the author. In the course of that activity, she seems to be degrading - or is anointing in some fashion? - Snelgrave. Well, which is it? What does it mean?
Without really understanding these characters or how they interact, even in the Marxist and feminist roles they seem meant to personify, it is hard to go where Wallace evidently wants to take you. A good contrast would be Blasted, by Sarah Kane, which also came out in London in the same year, an unapologetic and over-the-top attack on sexism, militarism, and the audience's sensibilities. One might be repelled by it, but the power and single-mindedness of the attack were impressive and moving. Blasted left me shattered; this play left me cold.
In so saying, I do not blame the cast or direction. They have nothing to apologize for. Flea is an honorable defeat. Vince is properly sanctimonious and properly prurient as Snelgrave, Coe seems to excavate all that is human and interesting in Bunce, Myers looks too old for Morse but otherwise well captures the self-possession and tenacity of the girl, and Leimkuhler makes the greatest possible appeal to our emotions in a character at once nakedly needy yet paradoxically hidden in clothing and in her reserve. And Alex Hacker, as Kabe, the watchman/jailer, personifies adequately the social breakdown of a city under siege from plague. Director Jayme Kilburn seems to have done all that can be done with this difficult work.
This show was not only my first encounter with Wallace but with the Strand Theater Company, now winding up its third season in Baltimore, a worthy part of the remarkable resurgence of theater in the Station North District. Dedicated to providing opportunities for female artists, writers, designers and directors, it certainly fills a need. I only wish I could recommend this offering from the company.
One Flea Spare, by Naomi Wallace, at Strand Theater, 1823 N. Charles Street, Baltimore, MD 21201. Tickets $15. www.strandtheatercompany.org, 443-874-4917. Adult situations, violence.