While students battled the elements outside this past weekend, within the shelter of the Robsham Theater Arts Center the characters of One Flea Spare battled London’s Great Plague of 1655.
The play, a student workshop produced by the University's Theatre Department, was directed (Cara Harrington, A&S'15), stage managed (Caitlin Mason, A&S'16) and designed by students in the intimate Bonn Studio Theater. The small venue was fitting to the play’s examination of humanity’s most base inclinations in the face of imminent death – a topic that would have lost much of its nuance in a larger space.
Low lighting and melancholy classical music set the tone for this dark investigation of human nature from the moment you entered the black box theater, a place seemingly separated in both space and time from the bustling collegiate world passing by outside.
The set appeared simple at first glance, featuring an ornate fireplace and a few chairs that gave the audience an idea of the time period. The set’s hidden complexity was only revealed when the lights illuminated and refracted through the beams and cast a beautiful, shadowy pattern on the stage floor.
The show’s moody, visual effect was complemented perfectly by an impressive audio track that was synchronized with the actors’ speaking. Unsettling sounds, such as the foreboding chiming of a clock, added to the play’s mysterious air and created an immersive sensory experience.
While the set and audio accompaniment gave the performance a bit of flare, it was primarily a pared down dialogue between the characters about their relations with one another and their personal histories.
“The play is so nuanced,” says Sarah Whalen, A&S ’18, who played Mrs. Snellgrave, one of the four characters quarantined together in a house hiding from the plague. “I feel like every time we read it we discovered something new.”
While I am sure there is much detail to be gleaned from the script of One Flea Spare, on the surface, unfortunately, the story line seemed to be uneventful and lacking in movement or excitement. The characters spend the entirety of the play locked in the same house, worrying about the plague ravaging the outside world and exploring one another’s psyches.
The actors played their parts with authenticity and energy, yet even with such vibrant acting some of the play’s scenes seemed monotonous. Meandering through stories about life as a sailor or poetic tales of death that were nearly incomprehensible, the audience became entangled in a web of metaphors and complex language.
To the untrained, average audience member, the subtlety of the script was likely lost. Although it is not extremely accessible to a student audience, the show would be extremely impactful for theater aficionados or those who have the chance to engage more closely with the text.
One notable, refreshing element that brought life and comedy into the play was the occasional appearances of the awesomely despicable Kabe, portrayed by Jimmy Haddad A&S'17. His street smarts and ability to turn the plague into an opportunity for profiteering were almost admirable, and his jaded attitude towards others had the effect of lightening the tone of the play.
There was also a certain comedy to be found in watching the haughty Mr. Snellgrave try desperately to hold onto his class distinction even in light of the indifferent and murderous plague. Ironically, Mr. Snellgrave is the first among the house’s residents to be killed by the illness. His death reinforces the idea that the things that we hold dear to us in life become irrelevant in the end.
“One Flea Spare really overwhelmingly shows how human morality is very fragile and shows our turn to our most animal instinct, which is our own survival,” reflects Nick Gennaro, CSOM ’16, who played Mr. Snellgrave. “You know when we are in a situation where we can die from some catastrophe we really lose ourselves and our sense of humanity.”
While One Flea Spare was exhausting to watch in its very realistic, microcosmic portrayal of life under the threat of plague, the cast’s skillful acting and attention to detail lit up the stage. Without a doubt, the cast left their audience with a skepticism of humanity’s morality and of what really remains of our nature when survival is our only goal.