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Plague Years 

One Flea Spare at the Phoenix II Theater

Wednesday, Apr 19 2000
The local premiere of One Flea Spare gave me a sense of déjà vu. Some time ago I saw another play about enemies pacing and glaring at each other in a cramped house, under bizarre political circumstances, in the tiny Phoenix II. The householder was tied to a chair; someone else gave a vivid speech about atrocities outside ... wasn't it Death and the Maiden? It was! Except the theater still was called the Jewel, and Ariel Dorfman's semilegendary script about Chile after Pinochet isn't as good as Naomi Wallace's newish play about London after Cromwell. The title comes from Donne ("Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare"), and carries reminiscences of flea-bitten rats infected with bubonic plague. It's the Great Plague that brings Wallace's stranger-enemies together.

London in 1665 has ground to a halt. Ships don't sail, trade has stopped, people are dying in the streets. Sick residents are quarantined in their own houses by armed municipal guards. William and Darcy Snelgrave have dismissed their servants and keep to themselves in a corner of an elaborate bourgeois manse; they're healthy, so far, but when two ragged refugees break into the unused living room, a guard boards up the windows and declares the Snelgraves quarantined.

The refugees are Bunce, an unemployed sailor, and Morse, a 12-year-old girl who claims to be the last surviving daughter of a family known to the Snelgraves. Mr. Snelgrave is obnoxiously proper and strict; when the girl and ex-sailor tell dirty stories he stamps on the floor with his walking stick and yells, "Not in my house!" He also teases Bunce by giving him his "gentleman's leather" shoes and stockings to wear. Bunce finds them comfortable. What if he just didn't give them back? he says. Snelgrave admits he would probably just buy another pair. "Then we'd both have a pair!" says Bunce, brightening.

"You're not playing the game correctly," answers Mr. Snelgrave. "If we both had them, we'd both look the same. People wouldn't tell us apart."

Wallace wrote One Flea Spare several years ago in the wake of the L.A. riots in '92, but the play sits just as well in the context of widening class differences in San Francisco. Wallace is an American living in London, more famous in England than she is over here; she's soaked up a London idiom and can write about politics and class without the timid PC sentimentality that infects so much of our political art. She can be powerfully emotional, too. The Crowded Fire cast, unfortunately, seems cautious and muted; some emotion falls flat and so does a lot of the savage London wit.

For example: Bunce is a sailor, full of stories about Caribbean whores and sea battles, but the actor who plays him, Darin Wilson, is sensitive, tall, and earnest -- not a convincing salt. In one sense he shouldn't be -- part of the point of Bunce is to counter Mr. Snelgrave's clichéd idea of a ragged sailor -- but Wilson can't even carry off the foul language, and his working-class diction doesn't sound right, either. "A coal miner, I was," Bunce says, describing his adolescence, and then gives Mrs. Snelgrave a story about his brother's death in the mine. "I couldn't take him up in my arms; he just spilled away." The scene should be stark, heavy with grief, but as he stares at Mrs. Snelgrave you get only the political point.

Tiffany Hoover is crisp and poised as Mrs. Snelgrave, who wears gloves and a high collar to hide a body's worth of burnt numb skin. When Bunce seduces her, Hoover's expressions nicely evoke the ambivalence of a half-convinced bourgeois wife. But her performance overall is restrained. Mrs. Snelgrave earned her scars as a girl by trying to save a horse whose mane caught fire, and Hoover somehow makes the story -- about burning horses -- fall flat.

A brilliant exception to the cast's overall restraint is Juliet Tanner's performance as the petulant, 12-year-old Morse. She gets to act childish, cruel, and pouty; her speeches about living and dying in the plague pits are breathy, panicked, and shot with real emotion. Of course Tanner's prettiness doesn't hurt (coal-streak eyebrows, fervent brown eyes), but her conscious effort to invigorate Morse pays off. "In the pits they all looked the same," she says, "who was living and who was dead." George Frangides, however, plays Mr. Snelgrave as a wooden cutout, but that could be how Wallace wrote him. He either needs to be humanized or played to the hilt; Frangides accomplishes neither.

A quotation from Tony Kushner about the play has been floating around that should probably just be disregarded. "Most devastatingly it addresses a tragedy of almost inexpressible dimensions," Kushner wrote, or said in an interview, " -- the consequences of the horrors of biology and capital on the young. As the play draws to its shattering close I was filled with thoughts of the children of Sarajevo and Rwanda and the slums of America." Don't let that deter you. It may not be enough to send you into yelps of ungrammatical ecstasy, but One Flea Spare is worth a look.


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