Plague and quarantine have a way of pulling back the covers to reveal what might have always lurked, but was hidden.
Sexuality and repression, intimacy, class struggles, gender roles. Playwright Naomi Wallace tackles them all in her 1995 show, “One Flea Spare.” The play runs through Oct. 24 at Springs Ensemble Theatre.
It’s 1665, and the Great Plague of London has descended upon the city, caused by the rats and fleas spreading sickness. While their aristocratic counterparts have fled the city for the country, the wealthy Snelgraves (Dylan Mosley and Alysabeth Clements Mosley) are forced to stay behind when their servants became ill and plunge the whole house into a 28-day mandatory quarantine.
As they reach the end of their lockdown, two new people break into their home. Bunce (Micah Speirs) is a sailor, while Morse (Kate Hertz) is a young girl and alleged daughter of a neighbor. The Snelgraves’ guard, Kabe (Jeremiah Walter), decides the household must enter a new period of quarantine, and the couple must live with the two strangers — a lower-class man and a child they’ve never met.
“The last two years have brought out a dark, nihilistic, ridiculous humor in me,” said director Sarah Sheppard Shaver. “It will resonate with audiences. We struggle with what genre to call it. Is it a black plague comedy? There’s something ridiculous about putting people in a room and they have to be with each other — we pick at each other, we make alliances. It’s a very human story.”
Two very different sources inspired Wallace’s script — she was reading Daniel Defoe’s “Journal of the Plague Year,” about the London plague, when the Los Angeles riots broke out in 1992.
“I began to see them both — L.A. and the London plague — as the same event. A time of crisis. A time when rich and poor get thrown together and, suddenly, one sees alternatives. I began to think about what happens when the containment of a presumed danger through the regimentation of space breaks down, such as when South Central L.A. began to ‘invade’ Beverly Hills,” as reported in Laura Michiels’ essay, “Times of Contagion: The Social(ist) Politics of Plague in Naomi Wallace’s One Flea Spare.”
So what happens when a rich couple suddenly find themselves on level playing ground with two poor people? Undoubtedly, uncomfortable questions will arise, such as how wealth can provide a better situation for those who have it, and help with things such as the ability to travel away from the sickness or obtain access to health care. These also are questions applicable to the here and now, in our current pandemic.
“Sickness and illness is a great leveler — it comes for us all,” Shaver said. “Some are better able to survive because they have better resources.”
And what of intimacy and sexuality? Mrs. Snelgrave had an accident earlier in life that left her whole body scarred. She hasn’t been touched in decades, and to now have a virile man living in her personal space could arouse many new sensations.
“The relationship between husband and wife — there are a lot of expectations of what people can ask for and not, what needs can be met and not,” Shaver said.
“There’s this tension between what she’s (Mrs. Snelgrave) allowed to ask for, and if she’s too ruined to be loved or worthy.”
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