By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
There are two scenes in One Flea Spare, the Southwest premiere of playwright Naomi Wallace's pressure cooker of class and sexuality served up by Kitchen Dog Theater, that seem to be especially close to the heart of Adrian Hall, the show's director and a nationally lauded stage visionary for more than four decades. They address one of his favorite theatrical themes: transgression. The first features Lord Snelgrave (Sean Hennigan), an arrogant and obdurate 17th-century aristocrat, handing his "gentleman's leather" shoes to Bunce (Dan Day), a runaway sailor compelled to scrub the walls and floors of the Snelgraves' home with vinegar to disinfect against the Black Plague that's devouring London. Watching the seaman, all agape, pull on the gold-buckled footwear, Snelgrave smugly announces that he has manipulated history by letting the scruffy peasant trod the floorboards in his finery, if only briefly. Little does he realize this will help incite a micro-revolution in his own quarantined home.
The second moment occurs when the vulnerable, more egalitarian Lady Snelgrave (Elizabeth Rothan) asks to touch a knife wound in the side of Bunce, much as Didymus requested to touch the wound of the resurrected Christ in the New Testament. But there are erotic undertones to the gesture in Wallace's play, sanguine shades that Hall revels in.
"[Lady Snelgrave's] very same line is in another one of Naomi's plays I directed," the 71-year-old Hall says, referring to the 1998 production of The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek, which debuted at the Humana Festival in Louisville, Kentucky. "She says, 'I feel like I'm inside you.' He says, 'You are.' And the audience is blown over by the sexual roles exchanged. It makes you really think about intimacy. Intimacy is so hard to write about, and to just assign roles based on genitalia is dumb and reductive. Naomi is wonderful like that, bleeding one role into another and making us look at them again."
One Flea Spare christens the new, 3,000-square-foot performance space at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary with the first Dallas stage work by Hall in 11 years. (It almost looks like the MAC's first oblong black-box theater standing on one end: taller up and closer around.) After founding the Tony-winning Trinity Repertory in Providence, Rhode Island, working in every major theater and non-theater town in America, and acquiring numerous honorary degrees, Hall was the artistic director of the Dallas Theater Center from 1983 to 1989. Then the board forced him out for (rumor has it) spending gobs on production values and the maintenance of a repertory company of actors who called Dallas home. The new MAC stage is considerably smaller than the one in either the Kalita Humphreys or the Arts District Theater. But Hall, whose Dallas shows have been described by those who remember them as "operatic" and even "flamboyant," doesn't mind. In fact, he insists the relatively more cramped quarters allow him to indulge in a breath-on-the-cheek familiarity that fat-budget productions, by design and intent, cannot achieve.
"People have written many words on what they call my 'one-room theory,'" he notes. "I believe that whenever possible the audience should share the same space with the actors. But it's not just because you're closer, because you can see better. It's because you can feel the actor attach the role to their inside, their guts, and give a part of themselves to the audience."
Eloquent images of guts and insides festoon the dialogue in One Flea Spare, in which the aforementioned Snelgraves, Bunce, and a bratty 12-year-old named Morse (Erin Neal) -- who reminds us of The Scarlet Letter's death-obsessed demon-child Pearl -- are trapped together for 28 days by royal decree to help contain the citywide spread of the bubonic plague. At the start of the play, none of these unlikely housemates is infected, but their fears are stirred by mercenary guard Kabe (Lynn Mathis), a trollish and black-humored fellow who mixes gory descriptions of the pits full of scabbed, twitching bodies with a call for the downtrodden plebes to take this opportunity and rise up to smite their social betters. Fear of disease and economic radicalism weigh heavily on the already burdened, asexual marriage of Lord and Lady Snelgrave. Cheerfully sitting atop the baggage pile is Bunce, an object of implicit prurience to the Lord and very explicit cravings to the Lady. Morse orbits the mind games with little stick puppets covered in lace dresses, mixing prophecy and the memory of her own horrific encounter with the disease to agitate everyone toward a bloody, sorrowful climax.
Episodic and not terribly realistic in the way its characters develop, One Flea Spare benefits from Wallace's imagistic, uncluttered metaphors for love and death and decay and privilege. These rhythmic verbal slide projections, in turn, benefit from Adrian Hall's impure direction of the Kitchen Dog actors. They are guided neither toward melodrama and presentationalism (as one would expect of any play in which a rich man wears a long, black, curly wig and threatens to beat his servants) nor into the mundane, conversational intensity of naturalism. Their performances are insistent and thoughtful, with sharp but unobtrusive diction that rides the chariot of words instead of being dragged behind it. As one who's never seen Hall's work before, I'd heard tales that he could be broad and brassy. But Hall insists the measured chaos (at least until the climax) more accurately reflects his national stage legacy.