By John Hogan
You know a performance is good when the memory of it stays at the forefront of your thoughts, rather than slipping away to that misty part of the brain where all that is trivial goes to sleep. The Boston College Theater Department’s recent staging of One Flea Spare, a play by Naomi Wallace was one such performance. Set in 17th century London, One Flea Spare chronicles the twenty-eight days four people spend in a quarantined house. The owners of the house, a wealthy merchant and his wife, both clash and mingle with the mysterious sailor and young girl who take sanctuary in their house. Social and sexual boundaries collapse as the plague ravages the outside world. Dark and mysterious from the very beginning, the production was captivating, brilliant, and haunting.
Before the lights dimmed, the atmosphere of the Bonn Studio was intimate and casual. For all those who have never been inside, the Bonn Studio is a small, black-box theater within Robsham and seats only 150. I had no idea the play would take place in this space, but the surprise of the smaller venue made the experience so much more personal.
When the lights went out, all chatter quickly ceased. An air of solemnity suddenly permeated the small theater. The play began with a monologue from the (undead?) Morse, a newly orphaned twelve-year-old, played by Maggie Sheerin. The eerie audio and singular light upon Morse—who was reciting her answers to a previous, unseen interrogator—set the haunting atmosphere for the rest of the play. Despite plenty of comedic moments, the audience was never allowed to get comfortable: The plague wasn’t merely a plot device to keep the characters in one room; it was a vulture constantly hanging over their heads. A feeling of sickness—of nothing being just quite right—underscored every action and every piece of dialogue.
One motif that stuck with me was the hypocrisy of Mr. Snelgrave, played by Nick Gennaro. Despite being the wealthiest and, according to himself, the most wise and worldly occupant of the house, he proved to be the most ignorant of the trapped four. Ever pontificating about the moral righteousness of his Christian household, he freely admits to the sailor Bunce his various infidelities. Apparently, the justification of wealth is what defines his aristocratic faith—men in his position are free to do what they please, even take advantage of their servants. One Flea Spare may take place in the 17th century, but the moral opacity of all those quarantined is surely not unique to their time.
One Flea Spare was described as a play that “deals with the clash of cultural, social, and sexual boundaries.” But Wallace’s play is certainly above and beyond mere friction. One Flea Spare doesn’t just poke holes in the façade of the “normal”—it tears that façade down. The social constructs which give order to the lives of not only the aristocratic Snelgraves, but also to Bunce and Morse, fall apart in the four weeks of quarantine. The romantic entanglement of the well-to-do Mrs. Snelgrave and the crass, impoverished Bunce not only happens, but happens openly. Their affair would have been punished severely, yet their love proved to be the most genuine. And when the fear of death is constantly weighing on your shoulders, why constrict yourself with the rules of others?
One Flea Spare concluded in a full circle: with a monologue from Morse. After she was carried off the stage and the lights went off, the silence the audience had been maintaining all of a sudden grew very heavy. A silent, reverential feeling of wow weighed on our shoulders for a brief moment. The lights went on and applause erupted in the way that only happens when a truly extraordinary event brings people together. I’m sure I’m not the only one trying to return to that first, silent moment before the applause. But moments like those are fleeting and ethereal. One Flea Spare is a haunting experience. The plague, the collapse of sexual boundaries, the disregard of a 12-year-old’s should-have-been innocence—everything macabre about the play stays with you. But the most haunting part of One Flea Spare is the desire to experience it all again.