Scratch that itch
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.
"Because I've done so much Brecht and Shakespeare, people tend to think I'm very presentational in everything I do," Hall says. "But I came up with Lillian Hellman and Carson McCullers and Tennessee Williams. Naturalism with poetic overtones was my way. It wasn't until the mid-'60s I did Brecht. Anytime you get something that tells a story with this whole thematic arc across it and the characters change by the end, you get away from the kitchen sink and absolute naturalism. One Flea Spare seemed to be one that couldn't be done too stylized. If we were going to believe the behavior, it had to have a natural environment. But Naomi presents you with problems that are not natural."
And as for guiding the actors through rehearsals, Hall insists, "The hardest thing that a director learns to say is, 'I don't know.' If an actor says, 'How do I do that?' and you don't have a clear idea, you should say, 'I don't know,' but plant ideas that'll suggest experiences real to them. If the moment isn't real for the actor, it won't be real for the audience. I can't say, 'Show me anger.' The only thing he can do is a cliché. You try to find out what his first intimate experience was, or the first time his mother slapped him or something. There is some therapist involved in the sense of digging around. Some directors are very autocratic, insisting that the actors follow him. That's not my way. I may send an actor to the other side of the moon, but it's always because I want them to follow themselves."
Naomi Wallace, a Kentucky native who first made her name as a poet and then a playwright in England, wasn't produced stateside until the mid-'90s. Her father was a socialist in the American South of the '30s, not exactly a popular position there but one he nonetheless trumpeted in public places. She shares his sense of outrage at the idea of government failing the poor and the undereducated, and often "takes a pitchfork to the rich," according to Hall. Virtually all of Wallace's scripts use real historical events as their backdrop -- the plague, the Depression, the Gulf War, a meatpacker's strike -- and, like One Flea Spare, they all share her depersonalized, poetic prose and a commitment to exploring how the common folk are vanquished or vindicated by the spiritual illusions of money and the lure of sex. The American public has always greeted the mixture of art and overt politics (especially overt leftist politics) with some suspicion and distaste, as though the sloganeering artist has just pissed in the holy water (art is pure, after all; politics is dirty). How does Hall feel about Wallace's proud biases?
"Truthfully, sometimes I think she stacks the cards in too specific a way. But the cards are always stacked a little one way or the other in any show that attacks serious subject matter. And Naomi doesn't pretend to be a solution solver. She just wants to write the play in as vital a way as she can, so the conflict comes through. And, as in One Flea Spare, nothing is easy with her characters. I believe she lets both sides speak. Lord Snelgrave, of course, is a pompous ass through much of the play, but Naomi allows him to reveal his humanity quite poignantly near the end." And as for theater skirting the political in the name of entertainment, Hall says with cheek, "Art will stay out of politics when people stay out of politics."
The politics of regional theater are much on the mind of Hall, whose residency at the Dallas Theater Center was bittersweet. He admits that "a resident company is not an economically wonderful thing; you do have to pay for it." (He once retained 16 actors under contract.) But the situation for Dallas actors is worse than when he left, Hall insists, because few people can eke out a living here doing what they've been trained for. He sees importing out-of-town actors -- which DTC does regularly under Richard Hamburger, and the Shakespeare Festival of Dallas will do exclusively this summer -- as part of a national weakness in which homegrown theater simply isn't taken as seriously as other cultural resources.
"We accept greatness outside New York in city governments, or skyscrapers. We accept it in orchestras: Cleveland has an enormously wonderful orchestra. But with theater, we think the standard of success is always commercial or anything out of New York. If the theater doesn't reflect where it's located, it loses half its point of being. It's got to have something to do with the people who're doing it and the people who're seeing it. We need more people to tell us a story about today. It can't just be tradition and classicism." The man who admits he may be remembered longest for his Shakespearean interpretations takes devilish pleasure in calling free summer Shakespeare a "wonderful civic duty."
Acknowledging our city's thriving broadcast commercial-industrial film trade, one of the largest in the country and part-time sustenance to the actors who reside here for however long they choose (or however long they can), Adrian Hall says, "Dallas has got it all, except the desire to provide a home for artists. They have all the means, but they don't have the desire. That sounds ugly, but unfortunately, it's true."
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