It’s the 1660s and the silly Restoration has been interrupted by the Plague. A wealthy London family is sealed up in their house by the authorities because their servants have died laden with “tokens” of the scourge, and the nailing up of the windows and the guarding of the doors of afflicted households were all they knew to slow the mysterious progress of the disease.
Mr. William and Mrs. Darcy Snelgrave are busy eating each other’s hearts out when two interlopers, Bunce and More, arrive to complicate their lives. Morse is a 12-year-old imposter posing as the daughter of neighbors, when in fact she is a servant who watched her masters die with an emotion close to glee. She wears her dead mistress’ dress. She bargains access to her anatomy for pieces of candy. Bunce is a bluff sailor whose wizardry at knots concretizes the ever-complicating tangle of confined lives. Their contact with the outside world is a squalid servant and extortioner named Kabe, who procures what these desperate people think they need, while delivering himself of the homilies of the gutter.
Excellence of production practically goes without saying at N.C. Stage, and One Flea Spare is another example of a play, and Naomi Wallace of a playwright, which owes that company a great deal. Chris Allison’s Bunce is a fortress of reserve out of which come sometimes the most devastating radiations of kindness and fortitude. This is one of the best interpretations I’ve seen on the local stage, giving away nothing — while yet withholding nothing — until the exactly appropriate moment. In a world where an orange is a treasure and a caress more valuable than gold, Bunce’s generous physicality and radical innocence are the highest, and yet most off-hand, courtesy.
Precocious Morse, played by Kaitlin Matesich, is a bit of a horror: bloodthirsty, amoral, wise with what wisdom comes through peeking through keyholes; she is also a sibyl who speaks in passages of prophecy sometimes, with gutter frankness at others. What a difficult assignment, and Matesich pulls it off with a frankness and determination which, though lacking finesse, reflects what a child might have been in a time when there was no childhood.
Mrs. Darcy hasn’t much to do except to suffer, and Callan White does so with dignity. The fact that her dress and her black lace gloves are the only elegant things visible in the house becomes more important as the evening unfolds. Her husband William is so hateful and smarmy that he needed Robert Linder’s touch of absurd unconscious self-revelation, his hint of Pantalone, to make him palatable for the two hours he rules that suffocating room. Of course we are glad when he gets his comeuppance, but our pleasure is a little more complicated than it would be if he were less amusingly creepy.
Michael MacCauley’s Kabe is a figure out of Shakespeare, speaking an antique language — half piercing, half squalid. He enters the scene with a tune or some provisions, once with a plate of burning coals on his head, hated and necessary. He is the bomb shelter and the copper bracelet and the supplemental insurance and megadose of vitamins, whatever we use to keep at bay horrors not fully understood and not under control. He is a kind of Fate, calling off the numbers of the dead with neither pleasure nor dismay.
MacCauley plays this part better than it was written, and Kabe in his hands comes off as the embodied representative of human misery, feeding off the Plague and the miseries of others, his place in society dependent on society’s being, for the moment, annihilated.
N.C. Stage is a small room and the play is itself claustrophobia-inducing, and one thanks Angie Flynn-McIver for direction that keeps us from strangling in it, and for — I assume — keeping on her actors so that every syllable of the complicated script rings like a bell. Anne Thibault is credited as dialect coach, and there too praise is due, for here are period British accents that one accepts immediately and forgets after two minutes.
One suspects that in different hands One Flea Spare might be less successful. The play, set not long after the great age of English Theater, is poetic, but not especially dramatic. Images presented by the characters are often vivid, startling, grittily eloquent, but even adeptly startling language is not the same thing as drama. Language and character are not well-matched here. In truth, there is but one character, exploring her own daring like a jeweler examining a dark gem. The playwright is the only soul on stage. The playwright, learned and eloquent, can be heard speaking the entire play through a series of masks. One of Wallace’s half dozen or so catastrophic realizations — Darcy’s disfigurement, Bunce’s lyrical love affair, Morse’s brutal experiences as a servant, the despair of those confined by Plague — could have filled an evening for a playwright less interested in causing a sensation. Wallace heaps up awesome riches of rhetoric in place of character, grand guignol in place of pathos. One admires the script without liking it.
One Flea Spare plays at N.C. Stage, 15 Stage Lane, across from Zambra’s, through May 1. http://ncstage.org or 239-0263.