“One Flea Spare”

This month onstage: hypocrites, senior sex, other twice-told tales

Suddenly, Portland's stages are an echo chamber. But it's an INTERESTING echo chamber.

Say, is there an echo in here? And by “here,” I mean in Portland theater, specifically current/closing plays that I’ve recently seen: Portland Center Stage’s A Small Fire, Artists Rep’s The Motherfucker with the Hat, Post5’s Tartuffe and Spectravagasm, Shaking The Tree’s One Flea Spare, Defunkt’s Let A Hundred Flowers Bloom, and Triangle’s Next Fall.

David Bodin and Kayla Lian in "One Flea Spare." Photo: Shaking the Tree.

David Bodin and Kayla Lian in “One Flea Spare.” Photo: Shaking the Tree.

Staying well clear of cliché, these shows have been delving into a lot of relevant themes that you don’t see every day on the stage. And unless I need my eyes adjusted, I’ve been seeing double. Just for fun, with some (mostly) late-run spoilers, here’s a short list of motifs that recur at least twice:

Senior Sex

In at least two productions, One Flea Spare and A Small Fire, senior citizens climax on stage. (Seniorgasm?) In both instances, the late-life lovers have suffered a loss of sensation, and use sex to reconnect, which brings us to…

Sensory Deprivation

One Flea Spare, Let A Hundred Flowers Bloom, and A Small Fire each introduces us to a character who can’t feel like he/she used to. In Flea, the loss is due to scar tissue sustained in a fire. In Fire, a rare nerve disorder robs a character’s senses one at a time. (And, no, oddly enough, I didn’t get those titles crossed.) In Flowers, HIV meds hypersensitize a character’s skin to the point where he can’t stand to be touched.

Bible Bangers

These exaggerated characters have swooped into the current plays like a sweet chariot. In Tartuffe, they abound as the title character and his enablers. In Next Fall, they’re praying for the recovery of their openly Christian, secretly gay son. In Spectravagasm, they’re the subject of spoof, and in Hat, a different bible—the AA recovery one—stands in for the other good book. Which brings us to…


Tartuffe and Hat each shows us supposed right-living mentors who backstab their protegees. In Next Fall, there’s another twist: a religious zealot backstabs himself, alternately accepting beliefs that do not condone his lifestyle, and practicing a lifestyle that’s not supported by his beliefs.

Matthew Kern and Andrew Bray in "Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom" at defunct. Photo: Heather Viera Keeling

Matthew Kern and Andrew Bray in “Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom” at defunct. Photo: Heather Viera Keeling

The Gay Community

Both Next Fall and Flowers center on committed long-term monogomous gay couples, and while Flowers hits a community hot button, HIV, Fall humanizes its pair with an everyman situation. Gay or straight, we can all be put down by a hard bump to the head.

Hispanic Bi

This is a great run for switch-hitters from south of the border. In both Hat and Flowers, we’re introduced to a discreet, half-closeted, het-married “Maricón.” In Flowers, a roguish shoe salesman warns his “blanquito” that he limits dalliances with men to “two times” to evade discovery by his pregnant wife. In Hat, the main character’s gay cousin is tired of being called effeminate and eager to show how tough he is (as tough as Van Damme, apparently) in a fight. But other than that, these characters are so similar they could almost trade plays.

Looking back, this has generally been a high-stakes, agony-and-ecstasy-filled fleet of dramas, with razor’s edges and gnashing teeth…and a few good laughs interspersed. It’s showed us challenging stuff—and then, just in case we missed it, showed it again.


A. L. Adams also writes the monthly column Art Walkin’  for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly magazine. Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch | The Portland Mercury
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Theater review: A haunting ‘One Flea Spare’

Naomi Wallace's potent play at Shaking the Tree brings a surreal and gorgeous plague upon a house

Since seeing it on Saturday, I’ve been haunted by both Naomi Wallace‘s writing and Shaking The Tree‘s production of One Flea Spare. Spectral expressions of the characters are seared onto my eyes; portentous poetic lines ring in my ears. In many plays, you get either taut dramatic tension and politically charged commentary, or heady poetics, romance, and tenderness. Very rarely can you enjoy both in one long, intimate sitting. That’s probably why this two-and-a-half hour epic flies by, and then ceaselessly replays in my mind. Director Samantha Van Der Merwe felt the same way upon reading Wallace’s indelible script: “It stays with me, and comes to me at different moments in my day.”

Kayla Lian and dolls. Photo: Jack Wells

Kayla Lian and dolls. Photo: Jack Wells


Historical Premise, Universal Theme

Four people are quarantined in a London house in the throes of the bubonic plague: nobleman homeowner Snelgrave (David Bodin), his wife Darcy (Jacklyn Maddux), and two interlopers—furloughed seafarer Bunce (Matthew Kerrigan) and 12-year-old girl Morse (Kayla Lian)—who’ve snuck into a house they thought was abandoned, only to get locked in with its imperious owners. We’re about to learn a lot about these characters. For instance:

One’s youth has been destroyed by a devastating fire. One’s currently nursing a large, self-inflicted wound. One’s endured a lifetime of beatings. One harbors deep prejudices and secret sexual desires.


Inside the quarantine house in ‘One Flea Spare’

Dramaturg Luan Schooler researched the plague year in which Naomi Wallace's play is set

Dave Bodin and Kayla Lian in Shake The Tree's "One Flea Spare"/David Van Der Merwe

Dave Bodin and Kayla Lian in Shake The Tree’s “One Flea Spare”/David Van Der Merwe


Editor’s note: Luan Schooler was the dramaturg for Shaking The Tree Theatre’s new production of Naomi Wallace’s “One Flea Spare” (through March 22).  ArtsWatch asked her to write about the experience and what she found out about the historical plague-year setting of the play and Wallace’s work in general.

As a dramaturg, it’s important for me to understand what ignites a director’s interest in a project so I can focus my work on supporting their vision. So the first time I discussed One Flea Spare with Samantha Van Der Merwe (Artistic Director of Shaking The Tree Theatre and director of this production) I asked her why she wanted to do this play now.

“Zombies!” was her immediate reply—which, frankly, was not a connection that had ever crossed my mind. She went on to say that she was intrigued by the current fascination with zombies—the unwilling undead who have no choice but to shamble on—and what that might say about our contemporary culture. In some oblique way, One Flea Spare seemed to explore a similar world in tension.

The play is set in London in the plague-ridden late summer of 1665. A wealthy couple, William and Darcy Snelgrave, have nearly completed the 28-day quarantine period that is required after their servants died of plague. Their home is invaded by two strangers: Bunce, a sailor avoiding impressment, and a young girl Morse whose claim to be daughter of another wealthy couple is questionable. The intrusion restarts the quarantine period, and these four mismatched souls are condemned to spend four weeks trapped together in two small rooms.

Not exactly zombies, but as Morse says in the play, “Who was alive and who was dead?” Perhaps the membrane between the living (those who have control over their days) and the dead (those who don’t) is more porous than we like to think. One can easily be trapped by circumstances beyond one’s control: disease, economics, and injustice, to name a few. Our cultural fascination with zombies—an interest that last erupted in the late 1970s when the Oil Embargo knocked the US off our comfortable economic pedestal—suggests that we are culturally uncertain and apocalyptic.

All great food for thought, dramaturgically speaking.


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