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Inside, a man and woman wait. Outside, the Great Plague breathes, and all of London shudders. It’s 1665, and 20 percent of the population will die—this we know, from program notes or history class. “Two of us will die,” says the young woman narrator who opens Naomi Wallace’s One Flea Spare, but first will come confessions, seductions, transgressions, and regressions.
Meet the Snelgraves, William and Darcy, paragons of the merchant class and owners of the London home that’s become their prison. He pushes papers at the naval ministry and brokers deals at coffeehouses, or did before his servants displayed “the tokens” of the plague: the swollen, darkened buboes on the neck and thigh that condemn a patient to horrible pain and near-certain death—and now the Snelgraves, since the epidemic has come to their home, to a 48-day quarantine. Meet Bunce, the starving, out-of-work sailor who breaks in through the basement, scavenging for food and unwittingly restarting the quarantine clock just as it’s ticked down to its final two days. And meet Morse, the odd girl who follows Bunce in, looking for shelter in a London gone largely mad.
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It’s Morse (a haunted Sarah Taurchini) who’s that narrator, 12 years old and the daughter of the Snelgraves’ well-bred neighbor. Or maybe she’s not so well-bred: Would an aristocratic young girl respond so unflappably to the importunities of the neighborhood watchman, who brings food in exchange for bribes, and who offers berries for the chance to nibble at her toes? Then again who can say how fixed anyone’s morals ever are in a city starving itself? Snelgrave (a bluff Andy Brownstein) bullies the sailor, squeezing out of him hyper-romanticized tales of life and death on the sea. His wife (Nanna Ingvarsson, tightly controlling volcanoes of pent-up anger and loss) keeps her distance, until Bunce (Davis Hasty) displays both a vulnerability and a kind of command that turn her in his direction. Morse observes, teases, choreographs, and as the pressures of their stinking confinement mount, the rules and roles of class and culture break down quickly. Masks come off; pasts are revealed; lust comes out of the shadows to frolic among the damned.
Alexander Strain’s thoughtfully conceived production puts design hard to work, with lighting and sound schemes that comment on Wallace’s alternately blunt and poetic dialogue. The sets and costumes, caked in the most convincing sort of filth, certainly convey the play’s grimy sense of place. It’s all very effective—up to the point where it begins to feel like Wallace has said what she came to say about class and money and power and passion, and hasn’t quite turned her thoughts yet to how she’ll get her characters off the stage. There are indelible images aplenty here, on the stage and in the actors’ mouths. It’s just there are maybe one or two to spare.