Daily Planet Correspondent
SAN FRANCISCO – Crowded Fire Theater Company opened the Bay Area premiere Friday of “One Flea Spare,” Naomi Wallace’s celebrated, but bleak and difficult political play about class relations, at Phoenix II Theater in San Francisco.
Set in London in 1665 at the height of the Great Plague, “One Flea Spare” focuses on four people from differing social classes who are quarantined in a house together, along with the guard who keeps an eye on them.
Forced to live in intimate circumstances, in increasing privation, in a world of death where life is cheap, the characters undergo social, political and emotional regression in a power vacuum that is disconnected from the outside world.
Crowded Fire’s production of this play is well performed and well directed in the intimate 30-seat Phoenix II space.
In their few weeks of quarantine together, the characters in “One Flea Spare” share their histories. The poor people have suffered physical privation. The rich have suffered numbness of the heart.
The master of the house (George Frangides), a shipyard owner, plays mind games with his male servant (Darin Wilson), a former sailor.
In one wonderful scene, master lets servant try on his stockings and shoes. The power that goes with the clothes moves back and forth between the two men as they exchange the clothing.
The mistress of the house (Tiffany Hoover) also flirts with the servant/sailor. Food and sex become bartering currencies in the deprived landscape of the plague. Sexual frustrations poke through at odd and quirky moments.
This is a painful world without love. The rich beat the poor, and the men beat the women.
The quarantine guard Kabe (Paul Lancour) announces periodically tallies of the newly counted dead, and sings revolutionary songs.
A flirtatious, sociopathic family friend (Juliet Tanner) enjoys betraying the secrets of the others in this pressure cooker world.
Playwright Wallace is a published poet. The language of the dialogue in “One Flea Spare” is heightened, and sometimes quite beautiful. It is not quite the literal and realistic dialogue one finds in a contemporary play.
But having said all this, in the final analysis for me “One Flea Spare” doesn’t quite work.
This intellectual story about class power and economic issues makes the same political points over and over.
Although there is a lot of texture to the individual scenes, at times the play’s larger story seems an afterthought to the political agenda.
None of the characters in this painful story is particularly likable, so it’s hard to care about the outcome of the story.
In a story without love, there’s no place for the audience to breathe.
Much of the human story in this production has been created by director Rebecca Novick’s silent moments on stage, in the characters’ reactions, and in their subtexts.
Set designer Melpomene Katakalos’s barren room with its roof made of a ship’s rigging reflects the rat and sailing ship motifs of the play.
Playwright Wallace, who was born in Kentucky in 1960, had her first plays produced in England, where she now lives part of the year.
After its London production, “One Flea Spare” had its American premiere at the Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theater of Louisville 1996.
It won an Obie in 1997.
In 1999, Wallace was awarded a MacArthur “Genius Grant.” She currently has commissions to write new work for both London’s Royal Shakespeare Company, and New York’s Public Theater.
“One Flea Spare” plays Thursday through Saturday, through April 22, with a special Monday performance April 17, at Phoenix II Theater, 655 Geary St. (at Leavenworth), San Francisco.
For ticket information and reservations, call 415-675-5995, or visit the group’s web site (www.crowdedfire.org).