At Convergence, an attractive little third-floor theater at the corner of Magazine Street and Jackson Avenue, Cripple Creek company brings us One Flea Spare. This recent play by Naomi Wallace not only adheres to the frugal restraint of modern drama in terms of cast size, it insists on it — in the same way a boxing match confines the contenders in a ring. Flea is a sort of No Exit that takes place not in hell, but in a hell on earth.
The drama tells the story of a wealthy merchant and his wife, William and Darcy Snellgrave, who are quarantined in their London home during a ferocious outbreak of the Black Plague. The time is probably 1665, although plagues continued through the 18th century. Quarantined is a euphemistic way of saying their door has been locked from the outside. An untrustworthy scamp named Kabe has the key. He taunts the Snellgraves about his power over them from outside the window.
The Snellgraves have been quarantined for 28 days, while their neighbors are dying and being dumped in the lime pits. One of the additional horrors in this grim world is the ever-present fear that you or someone close to you will develop buboes or, as they were called, "tokens" — the first marks of the fatal disease.
What then are William and Darcy to do when they discover two stowaways in their house — Bunce, a sailor, and Morse, a 12-year-old girl? The first thing they do is check that the interlopers are free of tokens. With that major anxiety calmed, there's time to move on to more personal matters.
Wallace likes mystery, which makes the play both compelling and confusing. Flea opens with the little girl holding her white gauzy skirt over her face, so she seems a phantasm. "What are you doing out of your grave?" she asks the blank air. A visible ghost seems to be asking a question of an invisible ghost.
If the play is sometimes mysterious, however, it also is curiously pat at times. Bunce and the girl almost always sit on the floor at opposite corners of the stage, while in the other two corners, the wealthy merchant and his wife sit on wooden armchairs that look like thrones. They wear the finery of their social rank. Some of the language seems refined as well, like the merchant's rhapsodic evocation of the cruel sea, or when he berates his wife for "encouraging the girl's putrid imaginings."
The sociological and personal get intermixed on some crucial issues. When we learn that the Lord Mayor and the court have fled the city, we get a whiff of the democratic revolutions to come. More pointedly, we learn that Darcy has not had any intimacy with her husband since she was severely burned shortly after her marriage at the age of 15. Now she wears gloves to hide her scars. Is it this long period of sexual neglect that drives the merchant's overwrought interrogation of the sailor about what he did for sexual relief during a two-year voyage at sea?
A weird moment of tension sets in when the merchant lends the barefoot sailor his shoes and walking stick — status symbols that the sailor never dared to consider within his grasp. Here we see a visible, symbolic shift in power.
Furthermore, Darcy has moments of tenderness with Bunce. They mostly center on his chest wound, but she has wounds of her own. In fact, she must remove her gloves to check his bandage. Here, a gentle sensuality unsettles the status quo like an earth tremor. Again, the future revolutionary dawn casts a symbolic glow.
Andrew Vaught gathered a strong cast and took advantage of Blake Baudier's strong abstract set (a floor of hardwood planks and the two wooden arm chairs) to emphasize the symbolic aspects of the tale. Scott Stewart designed the excellent lighting.
Charles Vaught is a fuming volcano of an imprisoned merchant, and Mishikea Braithwaite gives us a stifled, embittered Darcy. Blake Baudier as the sailor walks a fine line between insolence and deference. Emilie Whelan is appropriately enigmatic as Morse. Ron Reeder's Cabe tears around in a frenzy like the legendary inmate in control of the asylum.
One Flea Spare has an impressive pedigree, including productions at the Humana Festival of New American Plays and The Public Theater of New York. Nonetheless, I was generally underwhelmed by the claustrophobic and somewhat overlong tragedy. Or, rather, I was engaged by fits and starts, instead of from beginning to end.