Playhouse Creatures Theatre Company

Template for an Epidemic

The adventurous Playhouse Creatures Theatre Company is offering what’s labeled a “20th anniversary production” of Naomi Wallace’s One Flea Spare. This mordant historical drama didn't actually arrive in New York until 1997. It was a critical favorite at the 1996 Humana Festival of New American Plays in the playwright's hometown, Louisville, Ky.; and word of mouth from the Festival made its subsequent engagement at the Joseph Papp Public Theater one of the most anticipated events of the theater season. One Flea Spare, which derives its title from a poem by John Donne, is set in 1665 and portrays four people—a married couple and two strangers—trapped in a house that’s under quarantine. The place is the London of Daniel Defoe’s AJournal of the Plague Year, a work of fiction, which, Wallace has said, inspired the imaginative universe of her play. The current revival, directed by Caitlin McLeod and performed by a fine quintet of actors, is two relentless hours of powerful, if markedly cerebral, dialogue, with a number of narrative surprises for the first-time viewer.

Wallace wrote One Flea Spare in the midst of the AIDS epidemic, a public-health crisis that profoundly affected the American and British theater communities (and continues to do so). At that point, those infected with HIV had little expectation of longevity and those living with AIDS were subject to prejudice and a myriad of injustices. Defoe’s great novel and its portrait of plague-ravaged London was a natural point of historical reference for an erudite writer contemplating modern men and women contending with the spread of inexplicable disease.

Concetta Tomei (left) plays Darcy Snelgrave and Gordon Joseph Weiss is her husband, William, in Naomi Wallace's  One Flea Spare . Top: Bunce (Joseph W. Rodriguez, left) helps the ill Mrs. Snelgrave. Photos by Monica Simoes.

Concetta Tomei (left) plays Darcy Snelgrave and Gordon Joseph Weiss is her husband, William, in Naomi Wallace's One Flea Spare. Top: Bunce (Joseph W. Rodriguez, left) helps the ill Mrs. Snelgrave. Photos by Monica Simoes.

In One Flea Spare, William and Darcy Snelgrave (Gordon Joseph Weiss and Concetta Tomei) are childless aristocrats whose home has been quarantined after the death of their servants from bubonic plague. Just as the Snelgraves are about to be released from forced isolation (which would allow them to flee London for the peace and presumed safety of the countryside), their premises are invaded by Bunce (Joseph W. Rodrigues), a virile, coarse-mannered sailor, and Morse (Remy Zaken), a 12-year-old servant disguised as the daughter of the upper-crust family whom she previously served. Both are seeking asylum from infection and the police.

The interlopers are a catastrophe for the Snelgraves. A municipal guard (Donte Bonner), charged with monitoring neighborhood compliance with hygiene regulations, sees them, bars the residence doors, and extends the quarantine. This means that four people from differing social strata of a rigidly hierarchical society must endure 28 days together in the closest quarters imaginable. As the play proceeds, the high-testosterone presence of Bunce unsettles the sex-starved Snelgraves and awakens unaccustomed responses in the pubescent Morse. Under stress of confinement, the characters' secrets and prejudices slip out, their yearnings boil up, and civility evaporates in the heat of compulsive drives and desires.

Scenic designer Bryce Cutler has configured the Sheen Center's black-box venue for intimate theater-in-the-round, with minimal space between actors and audience. The principal feature of his simple, handsome stage set is a tiny, raised platform on which the bulk of the action is played. Four of the five actors are crowded in that little square for much of the performance, while Bonner, playing the sole character not confined to the house, wanders around outside the square, addressing the other actors from a lower level that represents the street.

Sarafina Bush dresses the actors in drab-hued costumes that combine contemporary garments with items suggesting 17th-century style. Aaron Porter illuminates the stage in cold, wintry light. The effect of the creative team's design is a sense of unrelenting claustrophobia.

Donté Bonner, as Kabe, hawks plague remedies.
Donté Bonner, as Kabe, hawks plague remedies.

Wallace is an artist of extremes. Her characters are altruistic one minute, predatory the next. The dialogue veers precipitously from poetic to crass and profane. The effect of her prose is as often chilly as it is sensual. Her writing often soars with an operatic quality, fraught with emotion, that captures the characters’ sexual longing yet expresses the trauma created by their radical separation from the rest of the world. McLeod has staged the play with a great deal of dance-like movement that complements the musicality of Wallace’s text and depicts the play's eroticism and violence vividly but with a certain delicacy. Despite occasional lapses in dialect, the five actors handle the lyrical qualities of the playwright's lines and speeches effectively and function throughout as a balanced ensemble.

When One Flea Spare premiered at the Humana Festival, Wallace had already made a name for herself in Britain but was unfamiliar in her native land. During the past two decades, she has become well-known, at least for a playwright, in the United States. She has received a "genius grant" from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation (possibly the most enviable honor in the English-speaking world); and, since 2009, One Flea Spare has been the sole work by a living American author in the repertoire of the Comédie-Française, the French national theater. The current revival makes a strong case for One Flea Spare as the original, insightful work the critics judged it to be 20 years ago in Louisville and an enduring part of postmodernist drama.

Naomi Wallace’s One Flea Spare plays at the Sheen Center (18 Bleecker St.) through Nov. 13. Evening performances are at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. Tickets may be purchased by calling the box office at (212) 925-2812 or visiting sheencenter.org/shows/one-flea-spare/.

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Tennessee Stretching

The opportunity to see two late plays by Tennessee Williams, one a world premiere, is a tempting prospect for theater lovers. Although the general judgment prevails that The Night of the Iguana (1961) was his last great work, there have been productions of the failed plays of the later years that attempt to restore luster to them. The Two-Character Play, Kingdom of Earth, A Lovely Sunday in Crève Coeur, and In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel have their partisans. In the same spirit, the ambitious Playhouse Creatures Theatre Company has put together a bill of A Recluse and His Guest and The Remarkable Rooming-house of Mme. Le Monde, both written in 1982, the year before Williams died. They are strange one-acts, and if they were by a lesser-known writer they might not be worth a look. However, they benefit from the inventive shoestring productions given them by director Cosmin Chivu and provide an engrossing evening.

Justin West’s set for each features junk: mounted animal heads, Cornell-like boxes and rusty radiators clutter the space; crates serve as chairs and tables. Buzzy TV monitors are used in both works, most unusually in Recluse and His Guest, which is set in “a far northern town in a remote time.” The TV monitors are less out of place among costumer Angela Wendt’s furs, greatcoats, and leather aprons and boots, which suggest a Game of Thrones era and a fairy-tale setting that jibes with the plot of Recluse. Into the town of Staad trudges a starving, penniless woman, Nevrika (Kate Skinner), to start life anew. She has trekked through forests and fields and avoided wolves. She is scorned by townspeople, but after an encounter with a wealthy but amoral “gentleman,” Nevrika arrives at the door of a recluse, Ott (Ford Austin), and insinuates herself into his life.

Quite apart from his desire to be alone, Ott has justifiable misgivings about Nevrika. For one thing, she talks to animals, cawing occasionally and bringing home a hen that lays eggs for them. Gradually, he adjusts to her company and finds her useful as she straightens his home, rubs his back and helps him bathe. He allows her to stay even after a letter of warning arrives about her. Skinner invests Nevrika with cunning and desperation, and Austin’s Ott is both harsh and floundering in the face of her growing affection. Her grooming him for an appearance at the spring ball in Staad foreshadows a Shavian ending.

The Remarkable Rooming-house of Mme. Le Monde is a shorter and slighter piece. A starving cripple named Mint lives in the attic of a rooming-house, where he is raped by the young son of Mme. Le Monde regularly. Mint (Jade Ziane) hauls himself around his upper room on hooks that descend on ropes, but the ropes are of varying heights, and sometimes he falls to the floor. When an old school chum, Hall (Patrick Darwin Williams) arrives, things turn ugly. Mint has biscuits (i.e., cookies, since the piece is set in London) and tea for his guest, who has stopped to service Mme. Le Monde (Skinner again, in a red fright wig) on his way upstairs. But the nattily dressed Hall, who is a confidence man, helps himself to tea and biscuits relentlessly, keeping the hapless Mint away from nourishment.

Willliams’s dialogue in the piece can seem like a high-school version of Joe Orton: Hall and Mint were educated together at the sniggeringly named Scrotum-on-Swansea. “At Scrotum-on-Swansea you were a notorious fag and bed-wetter, but reasonably mobile,” Hall recalls with a posh accent. “Now you get about only by swinging from hook to hook, like that historical ape-man swinging from branch to branch in the jungle.” The sexual frankness, arch dialogue and nudity are part of Orton’s repertoire, and, as John Lahr points out in Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, in 1982 Williams was working on another play, A House Not Meant to Stand, which “broadcast the influence of British playwright Joe Orton.” Clearly Mme. Le Monde, from the same year, also reflects Orton, but it lacks the comic snap of the younger man’s work.

Mme. Le Monde ends grimly but satisfyingly. Chivu has used the TV monitors skillfully to replace a collapsible staircase called for by the script. These short plays aren't earth-shattering discoveries, but they have many small pleasures, not least for fans of Williams’s work. Playhouse Creatures deserves credit for spotting those rewards.

Two one-act plays, A Recluse and His Guest and The Remarkable Rooming-house of Mme. Le Monde, comprise Tennessee Williams 1982, presented by Playhouse Creatures Theatre Company through March 6 at Walkerspace (46 Walker St. between Broadway and Church Street) in Tribeca. Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 24–28, March 2–6, and March 9–13, with a matinee on March 5 at 3 p.m. Tickets are $40 and may be purchased by calling 800-838-3006 or visiting PlayhouseCreatures.org.

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