One Flea Spare

Naked Eye Theatre Company

at the Goodman Theatre

By Carol Burbank

Playwright Naomi Wallace may be one of the few awardees whose work merits the popular nickname of her MacArthur fellowship: the “genius grant.” Her remarkable plays combine Brecht’s confrontation of the audience with Ibsen’s brutal realism and Chekhov’s comic sense of inevitability, tempered by a contemporary irony reminiscent of Maria Irene Fornes in her mysterious, intelligent metaphysical dramas.

Born in Kentucky and now living in England, Wallace initially received her greatest support overseas. Theater in the United States is known for many things–intricately nuanced psychological tales, glamorous popularizations of the classics, and gloriously over-the-top musicals, to name a few. But there are no other American playwrights who tackle the web of politics, sexuality, violence, and compassion Wallace does with the same sophistication and courage. Her indictments of imperialism are as unflinching as her assessments of the many ways we collude in our own oppression.

Even Wallace’s first play, The War Boys, was ambitious if flawed: she created a tense, believable story using powerful if sometimes unwieldy metaphors, exploring American-Mexican border politics through the incestuous contradictions of race and class relationships in the United States. With One Flea Spare and In the Heart of America she moved into new stylistic territory, a cross between magic realism and Marxist naturalism. Several story lines in In the Heart of America make the gulf war seem an interracial, intercultural maelstrom. One Flea Spare is one of Wallace’s meticulously researched historical dramas, set in plague-ridden 17th-century London. Here she demonstrates her skill at combining highly charged metaphors with gut-wrenching theatrical confrontations, creating riveting characters that are blends of fantasy, comedy, agit prop, and erotic imagination.

Wallace’s plays have recently begun to see more American productions; certainly Chicago companies have taken up the challenge, with mixed results. It’s hard to balance the politics and sex in Wallace’s roller coasters. Her inventive, powerful theatrical seductions, shouted and moaned with melodramatic passion, easily give performers an adrenaline rush. But subtler strategies are necessary to give audiences the same high–we have to be taken by surprise, led step by step to Wallace’s often cruel insights.

Notable successes in Chicago over the past few years include About Face’s bold, strikingly romantic staging of In the Heart of America and DePaul University’s breathtaking student production of One Flea Spare. When Naked Eye Theatre Company chose the same play as its inaugural show at the Goodman studio theater, I looked forward to the combination of a professional cast, a great space, and a brilliant play. Naked Eye delivered a solid but somewhat problematic staging, using a risky but generally successful strategy–heightening the characters’ sexual awakening as the key to relationships stunted by violence and harsh class divisions. Adopting the Marxist naturalist approach, this company blunts some of the magic but achieves a flirtatious archness.

Wallace’s story certainly supports this interpretation. In One Flea Spare four characters are trapped in a quarantined house, waiting out a month of isolation until they’re declared free of the plague. The aristocratic owners, Darcy and William Snelgrave, live a passionless marriage because of an accident that left Darcy scarred. Their frustration is hidden behind strict propriety, a contrast with the exuberance of the lower-class pair, the sailor Bunce and servant girl Morse, who sneaked separately into the house thinking it was empty. While Darcy, Bunce, and William establish a manipulative, lustful triangle, the teenage Morse plays the precocious child, turning their relationships into a game of living dolls who act out her traumatized idea of show-and-tell. In effect each character comes of age–either through orgasm or a sudden, unexpected discovery of the power of dominance and submission–in the face of the black death.

Wallace’s sexualized game is all about class, but to make the politics zing, the characters’ sexuality has to draw audiences in without tipping us off too soon to the dangers of the fantasy. Outside the house at least, the Snelgraves have the money and the power, and they’re not afraid to use those trump cards when their impromptu servants get out of hand. Still, their games gradually turn them from masters into something less clear-cut. All four characters are somewhere between collaborators and helpless puppets, their flirtations revealing the cruelty and violence beneath the surface of their desires, which mirror and pervert the rigid roles society assigns servants and masters.

Jeremy B. Cohen’s staging emphasizes the play’s whirling qualities–the moments when a character loses control to another or claims a new power through sexual conquest. Although each of the four has his or her moment of strength, the most powerful character in Cohen’s staging is Morse: the girl’s nonsensical make-believe sets the tone for the whole production. In fact it sometimes seems she’s choreographing the play’s affairs from an almost sociopathic distance. It’s an interesting twist on the play that makes it oddly comical despite its grimness. This choice allows the actors to build from lighter moments to climactic ones, but it also makes what should be some of the hardest-hitting scenes too playful, and they lose their full impact. When Morse tells William the story of her escape from a corpse-filled house, she’s so cold and restless that it’s hard to know whether to take her seriously. The nuances are missing.

In the Naked Eye version, sex is the play’s driving force, and each seduction is explicit: the actors perform shuddering orgasms, gasping out their physical discoveries as their defenses break down. It’s another choice that sometimes oversimplifies scenes. In one pivotal moment, Bunce moves his hands slowly up under Darcy’s skirt, finding sensitive places and finally making her come, all while telling her the story of his life. Darcy writhes and screams with pleasure, too excited to listen–and her excitement made it hard for me to focus on his story, the first unembellished truth he’s told her. It’s also a sparse, skillful monologue that shatters many of the myths Bunce has used to amuse and ensnare William: in that moment, Bunce forces Darcy to face his own reality as well as hers, giving her sexual pleasure but demanding that she acknowledge his life without fantasizing about it. Although the Naked Eye staging of the scene is undeniably sexy, it upstages the more interesting barter between the characters.

At times it seems the actors ramble through their scenes until the obvious moment of confrontation or confession, as if the director let each find his or her own way through the puzzle of the characters’ relationships. At the same time, though, the eroticism gives the actors a strong through line, allowing the playwright’s words to do their work. Because the play’s language is so concise and clear, it’s hard to entirely lose the levels of meaning Wallace builds into the flirtation and foreplay, even though the actors and director here sometimes seem to reach for melodrama, shock value, or an easy laugh.

Nonetheless, there are some excellent performances. Marilyn Dodds Frank, although young for the role of Darcy, is particularly skillful, giving the character a hungry playfulness that makes her sexual and emotional release poignant and bracing. Liesel Matthews shapes Morse into an uncomfortable cross between a wounded child and a master manipulator. Matthews, known for her work in the films A Little Princess and Air Force One, is so natural that she makes Wallace’s ornate stories seem plain–an interesting choice because it also makes Morse’s creepy acceptance of death and the dead as playthings seem ordinary. Joe Sikora’s Bunce is so good-hearted that the man’s uncanny insight into the psychology of his fellow captives seems almost harmless and his power self-protective–even his cruelty has an ironic whiff of kindness.

But the lack of directorial and performer focus in this production weakens two of the cogs in Wallace’s tightly machined play. William J. Norris is a bland contrast to the others as William; he seems more comfortable playing the smug patriarch than the passionate dreamer whose fantasies simmer beneath the surface of his power. Martin Aistrope plays the crude guard, Kabe, with enough of a leer and a swagger to be effective comic relief but without conveying any real menace. Like Geoffrey Curley’s elegantly abstract set and Jaymi Lee Smith’s beautifully tonal lighting, these two merely set the scene.

More than in most plays, it’s hard to predict where audience members will laugh in One Flea Spare, or how they’ll react when characters die or threaten one another. Still, if this production goes for a few too many easy responses, it also takes interesting risks. Audiences who listen carefully will hear Wallace’s lyrical critique of sexual repression and the deathbed erotics of the upper class. Hers is a parallel universe, sharpened by fear and dramatic license, reflecting not just the class conflicts of long ago but the contemporary eroticization of African-Americans and other groups, whose imagined “inferiorities” have been pumped into impossible sexual fantasies and fears.

This month I’ll be moving to Washington, D.C., to teach theater at the University of Maryland. One of the things I’ll miss most is living in one of the most amazing theater towns in the country: every week, through their risks, failures, and successes, Chicago companies and performers have taught me new ways of watching–and mounting–productions. There’s so much courage here, particularly among the small companies and in the daily sacrifices theater people make. Thank you for giving me so much worth remembering and returning for.