What lies beneath us: beneath our fancy clothes, the society we’ve built or the stories we tell others about ourselves?
This is the major theme explored in One Flea Spare, a script by Naomi Wallace that pulses with the acid power of the English language. Produced by Trunk Theatre on a spartan set at the Varscona—a square wooden riser, a picture frame and plain chairs—this is a challenging work that is strongly performed.
It opens with a monologue by Morse (a standout Eva Foote), a 12-year-old we’re told has lost both her parents to the bubonic plague in 1665 London. The imagery is vivid: she speaks of lying under her dead father for two days before crawling free, of a dead girl floating in the Thames, of people going to the pits of buried dead and their hearts breaking with a softly audible “cluck” of the tongue.
Then we’re taken inside the home of the Snelgraves, an upper-class couple quarantined against the creeping death of the plague. Their bubble is burst when Morse and a mysterious sailor named Bunce (Cliff Kelly) break into their home, seeking refuge from the urban misery. First contact is the lady Snelgrave (Linda Grass) catching Bunce relieving himself in their fanciest vase.
A class system is established quickly: William Snelgrave (Glenn Nelson), in his sumptuous coat and “gentleman leather” shoes makes the barefoot, ragged Bunce his servant, swabbing their floors with vinegar. Morse, supposedly the surviving daughter of the Snelgrave’s wealthy peers, is taken in as an equal: “a good Christian.”
Forced into a 28-day quarantine by their lecherous, profiteering house guard Kabe (a deliciously menacing Douglas Tokaryk) the four personalities clash inside the cramped confines. Dark, buried secrets scratch free. The threat of violence fairly seethes under the surface as paranoia, frustration and embarrassment push them to the edge.
Wallace’s powerful, poetic prose rings off the back walls of the Varscona, drilling the audience to their seats. But in a cast of very strong actors, Kelly seems just a little outclassed, his lines lacking slightly in force and gut-punch.
Although bleak, One Flea Spare is often darkly comic. It’s worth braving the darkness for the quality of the challenging writing and performances.
Until Sun, Feb 15 (7:30 pm, 2 pm matinees Feb 14 & 15)
Directed by Amy DeFelice
Varscona Theatre, $15 – $25