'One Flea Spare' full of vitality

by Sope Ogunyemi | 11/14/00 6:00am

Even with a professional company and months of rehearsal time, it would be difficult to do Naomi Wallace's play, "One Flea Spare," adequate justice. The play is rich in themes and metaphors that resonate both in the past and in the present. Hidden in the language, there are always new treasures to be unearthed and explored. The current staging at the Hopkins Center was produced in a considerably shorter time frame, and the cast and crew comprised of Dartmouth students and faculty had considerable additional demands on their time when compared to professional actors.

Within the boundaries of these constraints, director Mara B. Sabinson, with the help of assistant director Niegel Smith '02, manages to capture several of the plays important issues. Naomi Wallace, an American playwright based primarily in London, wrote "One Flea Spare" in 1996, and it earned her a 1997 Obie Award for Best Play.

In her play, four people of different social and economic classes are quarantined in a house for about a month during the London plague of 1665. Over the course of their enforced interaction, the rigidly constructed social distance between the rich and the poor is stripped away. Thus, the interaction between the actors, as well as the strength of the characters they portray, is integral to the success of the play.

Hannah Kenah '01 was without a doubt the jewel of the play. Most of the weight of the play rests on her shoulders because her character, Morse, is the twelve-year-old girl who narrates the story to us. As she manipulates everyone in the household, Kenah's Morse oscillates from childishness to intensity in the face of events no child should have to recount. During the first act, she brought vitality to a stage that was strangely stilted, as the actors struggled to connect with each other.

During the second act, however, the interaction between Rachel Fink '01 as Darcy and Tom Dugdale '03 as Bunce began to match the vitality of Kenah's performance. Their portrayal of the romance between an elderly upper-class woman and a young sailor hiding from mandatory service in Her Majesty's Navy ignited the stage.

Fink's Darcy Snelgrave is the sexually neglected wife of the wealthy owner of the house in which they are quarantined, and her relationship with Bunce is one device Wallace uses to question class stratification.

Dugdale's character contributed much of the heightened intensity of the second act, because of sexual tension with both the Snelgraves. In one scene, Snelgrave, played in the Hopkins Center production by Jackson Burke '03, pressures Bunce, his servant, to admit desires for homosexual sex while at sea. In response to his badgering, Bunce, who has previously admitted such activity to Darcy, takes his master's finger and sticks it through the hole of an orange he has been devouring. The topics explored within the scene are relevant to the past, yet they also resonate to a contemporary audience. "One Flea Spare" balances quite nicely the border between past and present.

One of the ways in which Wallace achieves this balance is an overturn of constructed class distinctions of the 17th century, as well as of the 21st. Symbolically, her characters exchange status symbols throughout the play. Bunce strips Snelgrave of his status by donning his master's clothes. Morse goes so far as to take on the identity of the privileged girl she served and who died a victim of the plague.

It is Kabe, a guard certainly not of the upper class played by Gabriel Crowl '01, who controls all the inhabitants' access to the world outside. In addition, unlike the historical facts, it is for the most part the underprivileged who survive the plague. It is from Morse's recollection, from her perspective, that we receive information about what happened in the room.

The drama department used its resources to create wonderful moments during the production. Lighting designer Colin Bills '98 used clever tricks of light to highlight Morse's wrenching soliloquies, and set designer Christine Jones' bordered set contributed to the sense of confinement that was brought into stark contrast with the vitality of the second act. Thus, despite the limitations it must work with, the drama department presents a funny yet insightful production of a complex play.

"One Flea Spare" plays Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and on Sunday at 2 p.m. in Moore Auditorium.