A plague of power dynamics: “One Flea Spare”

By RAIN JI

What happens when an epidemic challenges traditional societal structure? “One Flea Spare,” which ran each night from Nov. 21 to Nov. 23 at Wright Memorial Theatre, explored precisely that. 

Written by Naomi Wallace, the play “One Flea Spare” is set in London during the Great Plague of 1665. Morse (Emily Ma ’21), the 12-year-old daughter of a servant, and Bunce (Will Koch ’21), a transient sailor, sneak into the wealthy household of Darcy (Katie Marshall ’21) and William Snelgrave (local actor Gary Smith). As the house becomes quarantined, the four are forced to live together in the same space, guarded by Kabe (James Peacock ’21), who occasionally delivers news and supplies to the bunch. From there, the rigid class divisions, traditional power dynamics and normative gender relations that separate them quickly fall apart. 

Wallace’s poetic language was a challenging element of the play’s production, yet actors did a marvelous job unfolding their characters in engaging and convincing ways. The success can be attributed to the conscientious effort actors put into each character and the astounding collaboration between the cast and Director and Associate Professor of Theatre Claudio Medeiros ’90. In a play with only a few characters, each one must add a level of complexity to tell a cogent story. 

The character of Darcy solicited much sympathy from the audience. Dressed up meticulously in a multilayered dress with her neck and hands perfectly covered, Darcy appears initially to simply be an upper-class woman with maternal tendencies, yet as the story develops, the audience slowly finds out about the trauma that she has experienced. “Darcy is curious, youthful, and intelligent. To me, Darcy’s scars and trauma are what make her so beautiful and interesting as a character. That’s why it’s so heartbreaking when she talks about her life before the fire and what it felt like to actually be loved,” Marshall said.  

COURTESY PHOTO/GRIFFIN BIRNEY
Olivia Blackmer ’23 described the play as “visceral and intoxicating.”

In order to best play this character, whose life differed significantly from Marshall’s, she tried her best to “find linkages between our lives and then add in the layers of age and trauma.” In addition, to best resemble the character with historical accuracy, she “developed specific physical vocabulary for the ways that she would carry herself on stage and react to her surroundings.” Marshall portrayed Darcy, who possesses intense sexual desires hidden under her appropriate facade, exceptionally well. 

Gary Smith passionately played the role of William Snelgrave. The character’s arrogance and pretentiousness conveyed such overwhelming condescendence that it was at times repulsive. Medeiros was thrilled that a professional actor joined the cast, and he commended the way Smith carried himself during rehearsals. “[Smith] modeled in a very quiet, unassuming and unobtrusive way,” Medeiros said. The character left people wondering what could possibly be beneath a self-proclaimed righteous facade. 

The play began and ended with Morse. Within seconds of her appearance on stage, the audience’s attention was tightly gripped by her monologue. Her role, according to Ma, is “the driving force in upending power dynamics throughout the play, symbolizing the flea during the time of the plague.” Morse is no easy character to take on, and the significant age and intellectual gap between Morse and Ma made the character tricky. “Although Morse has gone through more than most have in a lifetime, she sees the world through a child’s eyes,” Ma said. “Once I approached the play through her perspective, the poetic language slowly made sense and the difficult emotional content sang even clearer.” 

Bunce was an exciting character to say the least. In the beginning, he was made an interim servant by the Snelgraves. But after getting a taste of what an upper-class gentleman has — socks, shoes and cane — it became impossible for Bunce to return complacently to his place on the social ladder. Playing such a dynamic character posed its difficulties for Koch. “One of the challenging parts about working through this character has been his intimacy with death, and finding the humor and the joy in the character despite the hardship that he’s endured up to this point in his life,” Koch said. “It’s something that’s not immediately evident when going through the text, and it was so fun to uncover this aspect of the character as the process developed.” 

Kabe garnered the most laughter from the audience. Indeed, when he sucked Morse’s toe and kissed her feet, audiences gasped audibly. Kabe has a mildly ribald sense of humor that felt simple and authentic. The exchanges between Kabe and Morse highlight volatile gender relations through acts of seduction. Peacock’s way of calling out of the death tolls was shockingly casual, brilliantly casting him as an indecent character — yet what is decency in a time of widespread epidemic? 

I hope Wallace’s vision is a warning, not just a dream.”

— Claudio Medeiros

Tackling the play’s difficult poetic language required endless patience and hard work from the actors and Medeiros, and fostered a close relationship among the cast and director. Medeiros congratulated the professionalism and dedication student actors showed towards the play. “It always felt to me as if I was dealing with a company of professional actors,” he said. 

Reciprocally, cast members appreciated the relationships they developed with Medeiros. “Claudio has been really good about giving us agency during this process at finding out what the language means, while also engaging us in incredibly thought provoking discussions to find the answers,” Koch said. 

 What makes the play shockingly relevant is its political subtext. As an American playwright, Wallace purposely sets the play in a foreign place and time to allow detached observances and reflections. The play was originally inspired partly by the 1992 Los Angeles riots yet parallels are still clear today. 

“When considering how the play resonates today, we might think of the widening gap between the rich and the poor in the United States of America, or the various uprisings happening around the world – whether against police brutality, totalitarianism, or the ravages of neoliberal capitalism,” Medeiros said. “I hope Wallace’s vision is a warning, not just a dream.”

Both Koch and Ma spoke to the significance of the play in today’s world. “The student social climate at Middlebury tackles these issues all the time,” Koch said, “and I think people who care about fighting social inequality and injustice will see this play as a relevant commentary on what’s going right now.” 

Ma echoed this sentiment, saying that “I think this show confronts power structures that we often accept as irrevocable truths and how previously oppressed people behave when they are suddenly thrust into positions of power.”

After the show, audience members spoke highly of the play. 

“What a weird show,” Will Napper ’23 said. “I loved it!”

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