It's no coincidence that to get to Theatre Coup d'Etat's latest production, you have to walk down a somewhat dark and worn concrete staircase at the Soap Factory. Naomi Wallace's One Flea Spare is a descent into the underworld — into a veritable hell on Earth.
Set in plague-ridden London in 1665, One Flea Spare locks four of the five characters in a room and sees what happens. Along the way, there are asides on societal roles, political theory, and enough bodily corruption and sexual energy to fill an anthology of Clive Barker short stories.
It's an absolutely engrossing piece, led by strong performances from a quintet of actors and a spare aesthetic brought forth by the austere environs of the Soap Factory's chilly, concrete-floored basement.
ONE FLEA SPARE
514 Second St. SE, Minneapolis
Through June 2; 612-623-9176
As the plague ravages London, homes of the deceased are quarantined, and the survivors must wait 28 days in isolation before they are allowed to leave. The wealthy Snelgraves (Jim Aherns, who towers over the rest of the company, and Ellen Apel) think their time is almost done. After the deaths of their servants, the couple blocked off most of the house and stripped the furniture.
That plan gets scuttled when two strangers break in late one night. They are Bunce (Peter Beard), a sailor who is avoiding the press gangs looking to conscript men for England's war with the Dutch, and Morse (Briana Patnode), a 12-year-old girl who says she is the daughter of another wealthy family who survived while the rest of the household succumbed to the plague. Once the neighborhood guard, Kabe, discovers the newcomers, the whole group is consigned to four more weeks together. So amid the scent of unwashed bodies and vinegar and the cries of the watchmen giving the tallies of the dead, the four are forced to coexist.
Maybe that sounds like Big Brother: The Plague Edition, but Wallace uses the setting as a Petri dish to explore the way people create and recreate themselves as life necessitates. There are layers to these characters, perhaps most explicitly in the case of Darcy Snelgrave, who wears a heavy dress and gloves even in the close quarters of their fancy prison.
From early on, it's clear that Morse is not exactly what she seems. She may be able to act the part of the daughter of a rich family, but there is an edge to her personality that suggests more complex origins. Sailor Bunce's adventures at sea seem to shift with each passing scene, as the horrors he has seen in the past come to haunt the whole show.
Even William Snelgrave isn't quite what he appears to be. The character is a wealthy, conservative scion of society — but one who harbors a bundle of rage about the death of passion in his life.
The plague offers the lower classes a chance to reassert and recreate themselves, and Bunce and Kabe (Brian Joyce) take advantage of that. Kabe starts as servant, but eventually gains control over the Snelgraves, awakening feelings in Darcy that she hasn't felt for decades and nudging William into the impending class revolution. In his brief moments, we see that Kabe's clothing is slowly become more and more fine, as he wears the spoils of the rich victims of the plague.
While the show occasionally threatens to overheat as it rolls along, director James Napoleon Stone keeps the action tight and the performances pitched perfectly for the space and the tone of the production. Meagan Kedrowski's spare set acts as a nice contrast to the fine costumes created by Barb Portinga, a fitting reminder of the fickle nature of fortune.