By Naomi Wallace
Directed by David Wheeler 
New Repertory Theatre
Newton, MA  through April 8th, 2001.

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

"One Flea Spare" at Newton's New Repertory Theatre has a set that anchors the action in time and space while opening up to greater realms of the imagination. Designed by Richard Chambers,  it is the frame of a first floor room, representing a timbered town house of the 1600's in Westminster, the governmental borough of London.. It is composed of dark weathered beams and a rich sherry colored wide plank floor-- the same beautifully scuffed floor that gave grounding and solidity to the Irish pub set for the last play to grace the Rep's stage: the superlatively acted, sensitively directed, absolutely world class production of Connor McPherson's "The Weir".  Beyond the civilized rectangle of the plank floor, a dark and  narrow walkway runs round the section of the house we see, and past the wood frame that indicates the single room's back wall is a massive screen of jumbled planking,  bathed in John Ambrosone's expressive light.  The "Flea" set is stark and grim, but within it the textures of polished and unpolished wood and the gleaming pools of light are lush and sensual.  Naomi Wallace's poetic drama is made up of such contrasts, and should be at home in such a set. Haddon Kime's music is fine, too: delicate and distant and eerie, sending shivers up the spine.  A ghastly white spot picks out the hollowed face of a fair haired little girl, who recites a horrific description of the Great Plague, part clinical detail and part nightmare.  The child may be this place's only survivor-- and to survive here she may have done something that will condemn her now and eternally.

The Flea of the title is borrowed from a seduction poem by John Donne, a complicated conceit that assures his coy mistress that sex with the poet will hurt her no more than a flea bite does-- and asserts that the wee black flea that has bitten both of them and thereby mingled their bloods and souls is for that reason sacred.  Such a wonderful flea should not be hunted and squished like ordinary vermin, but Spared in the name of Love. However, given that Wallace's play is about the Plague Year 1665,  the Flea that leaps to mind is the one whose bite carried the the Black Death from rat to man. Is it too fanciful to associate the name of the girl child, Morse, with Mouse-- the small attractive member of the Rat family?  Or might Morse be the root of re-morse?  The plague was also carried from infected human lungs to another human's nose or lips, with a loving kiss or with a dying breath.   Wallace, like Donne, finds beauty in such minglings.

In 1665 people didn't know how the contagion spread: only that it did.  Quarantine was one of the ways they tried to stop it.  The house we see on the Rep stage is a cage for its owners, the Snelgraves.  They have been locked inside it for the law's required 28 days after their servants died of the Plague.  The Snelgraves fear that they will be locked in for another 28 days if the Watchman discovers that a sailor and the little girl have wriggled their way inside the boarded up building seeking shelter and loot. Confronted by master and mistress inside what the trespassers believed was an abandoned house, the child claims to be the daughter of a rich neighbor who has been wandering alone since her parents' death. She claims kinship, and begs for help. Mr. Snelgrave doesn't believe the child's story, but Mrs. Snelgrave accepts her, because she is a beautiful child  "with the breath of an angel".  The sailor, Bunce,  might be a figure of menace-- a strong rough desperate man who has served in the wars-- but Mr. Snelgrave has no doubt of his right and his ability to order the sailor out of his house on pain of death, the severe but lawful punishment for the trespass of a runaway sailor.  However, the watchman discovers the strangers, and orders the quarantine continued.  The Watch, one Kabe, is the only visitor allowed, and the only source of supplies and news for the helplessly imprisoned gentlefolk.

Kabe is a marvelous grotesque out of the plays of Ben Jonson-- corrupt, greedy, filthy-minded, delighting in any opportunity to kick his inferiors or flout his betters when fate puts them at his mercy.  Kabe is Gallows Humor incarnate, and James E. Berrier plays him with all the relish and vigor the part deserves.  Berrier sings Kabe's rancid songs and proclaims the progress of Plague deaths and bargains for the child's sexual favors-- this particular child has been "schooled at keyholes" and seems horribly accustomed to bartering -- as if the enjoyment of others' misfortunes were the most natural thing in the world. It may well be, Godamercy.

If Berrier's Kabe is the underside of the class system temporarily on top and run amok-- as his name's rhyme with Jack Cade's,  leader of the peasant revolt who runs amok in Shakespeare's Henry VI, suggests --.then Stephen Mendillo's Mr. Snelgrave is the soul dead at the top.  Once Snelgrave had everything: youth, wealth, honor, blissful love with his beautiful young wife Darcy.  But the bliss went out of his life early, when his bride was cruelly scarred in a fire.  He has lived with Darcy now for many years without touching her, and the man's joyless but prurient interest in the fellow humans who are his social inferiors feels almost scientific. They are things, his relations with them in the nature of experiment.  Snelgrave invites the footsore sailor Bunce to try for an envious moment  walking in the comfort of his own luxurious gentleman's shoes; he pumps the lad for scabrous detail about the sexual habits of sailors. Snelgrave notices that his wife Darcy (Lisa Richards) is even more interested in Bunce and his war stories and his sailor's sex life than he is himself, and he humiliates both with his rude observations. But Robert Parsons' Bunce is too resilient to be held by humiliation.  Bunce observes the boundaries of his place in order to survive, but he observes them as boundaries set by others, and not as firm as the internal boundaries he has set for himself.  He crosses external boundaries when necessary, when what's at stake is more important than survival. The scene in which Parsons and Richards cross a whole wilderness of boundaries together is frightening, painful, and infinitely tender; the most moving scene of the play.

Costumer Emily Dunn has dressed these characters with a care that incorporates brute necessity and period luxury while defining individual character, achieving a result that also lends itself to director David Wheeler's allegorical iconography. There are moments when a still photo from the show could pass for an illustration from a Morality tract, both beautiful and instructive. Wheeler is at ease with such tropes, and has tried to set his cast at ease with them too, freeing them to be three dimensional humans alive and interacting within a frame rigid with analysis, stuffed with information, and suffused with poetry.  It isn't surprising, and scarcely disappointing, that Wheeler doesn't quite succeed.  If I hadn't seen artistic director Rick Lombardo and his astonishing brilliant heart wrenching cast of "The Weir" succeed in just such an impossible enterprise on this same New Rep stage last month, I probably wouldn't even have noticed, so plentiful are the things done well in this production.  But there are also tiny black holes in this New Rep "One Flea Spare", places where an actor just sort of marks time until a line he can deal with comes round and he is alive again.  I say "he" because Steven Mendillo seems to be at the center of most of these holes, and his wife Lisa Richard's suppressed Darcy, seething with generous emotion under her stiff clothes and scar petrified skin, seems to suffer from them least.  Ah-- except for Berrier's Kabe who carries his villainy like a shield and wades into the deepest darkest waters, secure in the knowledge that he will never really win through to the house and engage these lives.  A couple of the holes are simply technical, like the awkward tying of a character to a chair, or the occasional line flub. But some of them I think are due to the actors' being unable or unwilling to enter forbidden emotional territory.  Whether this is to be condemned as a failure of artistic imagination or lauded as the triumph of ethical sensitivity is the question.      

What would a production of "One flea Spare" be like, if everyone on stage and in the audience were fully engaged, all the time?  The patches of Terra Incognita these actors are tippy toeing around are full of demons, monstrous impulses and forbidden indulgences.  Most of them relate to the child Morse.  Some of this territory overlaps pedophilia as explored by Paula Vogel in "How I learned to Drive"-- but that script superimposes layers of protection and distance.  Vogel reduces all the people in the outer circle of her story to two dimensional sketches, and her child is played by an adult actress.  Here Morse is  played by eleven year old Eliza Rose Fitchler, the daughter of a very talented local theatre artist. She is a fifth grade student at Cambridge's Grant and Parks middle school.  Eliza is earning class credit in English and History and possibly Science for the research she has done for this role, especially a close reading of Defoe's "Journal of the Plague Year".   I think back to myself at age eleven, word drunk, precocious, in love with showing off and making believe -- I would have given anything to be cast in such a juicy part!  But if everyone were fully engaged, rushing past those boundaries and into the forbidden, drawing out their own darkness and reaching without inhibition into an answering darkness within a vulnerable child--- could the audience stand it? Should they?  Should I?  Or should we flee for our very souls from that theatre, and call the Department of Social Services to report a case of child abuse?  Courage in an author is wholly commendable.  I salute Naomi Wallace, who always takes me places I am too cowardly to enter on my own.  But asking a child to serve as guide and victim......?