Naomi Wallace’s award-winning play was last presented in New York at The Public Theater in 1996. It’s intriguing to consider why Playhouse Creatures think its revival timely. Mr. and Mrs. Snelgrave (Gordon Joseph Weiss and Concetta Tomei), a wealthy, older couple in 17th Century London, are quarantined in their home while the plague rages around them. At night the rats come out in two and threes to lick the sweat from our faces…
Their servants having died, William and Darcy live in the only two rooms still, hopefully, uninfected. Supplies and information (death tolls and gossip) come by way of Kabe (Donte Bonner), a mercenary who ostensibly keeps them inside while making a handsome profit.
Concetta Tomei, Remy Zaken, Gordon Joseph Weiss
Within a short time, the house is twice breached. A macabre 12 year-old girl, named Morse (Remy Zaken), allows the Snelgraves to believe she’s their neighbor’s well bred child running from household deaths, while Bunce (Joseph W. Rodriguez), a wounded sailor, is deferential and direct in his need for sanctuary. The intruders’ necks, arms, and stomachs are examined for telltale boils.
Concetta Tomei, Remy Zaken
In the first of many provocations, Morse, accepted as one of their own, asks to see Mrs. Snelgrave’s neck and gloved hands with the excuse that they’re likely beautiful. Bunce, considered beneath consideration, is put to work scrubbing the floors with vinegar. The Snelgraves haven’t been intimate since she was 17. Both are drawn to the attractive, virile sailor. William goads and salivates, Darcy passionately circles. Mr. Snelgrave is first imperious, then cruel. There are consequences. Morse appeals to Kabe – in passing. The girl parlays kissing her ankle for fruit; sucking a toe is more expensive. It will be 28 days before these four are allowed apart and outside.
Playwright Naomi Wallace is here intriguing and poetic. Historical description is trenchant. One Flea Spare contains deep sensuality, volatile sex (not actually seen) and palpable seduction, all heightened by the nearness of death. Moments of draconian class differences (and circumstances) are vividly represented by such as Bunce’s trying on Mr. Snelgrave’s beautiful shoes- at the latter’s unexpected invitation. Background stories are rich, relationships fascinating, characters well drawn. A horrible end works well.
There are, however issues. The program puts us in London 1665 and “now”, yet we never recognize the present. At one point Morse seems to describe her own demise, then appears again. Fearless, deceptive and calm, she may herself represent death. And what of the sailor’s wound, with which Mrs. Snelgrave is obsessed?
As to why now, perhaps the company is suggesting the state of our threatening world makes or should make us hyper aware of one another. In many ways, we too are sequestered together, some literally, others politically or emotionally. Action and reaction is daily inflated, sometimes with dire results.
Except for the affected Gordon Joseph Weiss who acts as if he’s the only one onstage, the company is strong and cohesive. Donte Bonner is a shifty survivalist to his skin. Supple carriage and fine accent enhance. Remy Zaken delivers a portrait of quiet malevolence with skin-tingling naturalness. Joseph W. Rodriguez’s personification of Bunce is proud, manly, watchful; a nucleus of in-check power. Sensitivity emerges with powerful grace and credibility.
Joseph W. Rodriguez, Concetta Tomei
Concetta Tomei is masterful. There isn’t a moment on stage we’re unaware of Mrs. Snelgrave’s thinking and/or emotion. Every action is colored by personal history. When Bunce touches her, the actress viscerally vibrates. In the presence of Mr. Snelgrave, she steels. At the last, her character resembles Medea. Brava.
Staging in the round is well handled by Director Caitlin McLeod. I rarely feel anything is missed. Characters standing on a stool at various corners of the raised platform are clearly leaning out of windows to communicate. Morse and Kabe respectively circle the stage speaking to ‘us,’ the former in his capacity as town crier, the latter like a dark angel. Proximity is effectively uncomfortable. Scenes with Mrs. Snelgrave and Bunce are electric. Ropes are employed with skill.
Bruce Cutler’s clever Scenic Design is comprised of hidden trap doors in the floor containing necessary elements, somehow always a surprise. Morse’s handmade dolls are terrific.
Costumes by Sarafina Bush are a ragtag, layered combination of period and contemporary. First apt, but later adjusted, they add to the confusion of when we are. Depiction of Mrs. Snelgrave’s physical cross-to-bear is extremely creative as is Kabe’s attire.
Photos by Monica Simoes
Opening: Concetta Tomei, Gordon Joseph Weiss, Joseph W. Rodriguez, Remy Zaken
Playhouse Creatures present
One Flea Spare by Naomi Wallace
Directed by Caitlin McLeod
Sheen Center (Black Box)
18 Bleeker Street
Through November 13, 2016
While I grant that culture depicted here is relatively unknown to me, I don’t for a minute attribute my opinion of the play’s success to novelty. Author Quiara Alegria Hudes’s detailed, multicultural characterization and unexpected plot lines make the bar setting an apt canvas rather than a cliché. There isn’t a false, pandering, or extra word. The piece is lively, humorous, dramatic and affecting.
Hudes, it should be noted, won a Pulitzer Prize for Water by the Spoonful and wrote the book for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical In the Heights. The latter was directed by Thomas Kail, responsible for both Hamilton and this new work.
Daphne’s North Philly Bar/Lounge is the kind of old fashioned, neighborhood watering hole patronized by family and odd ducks for whom the place is a second home. Sentences begun by one are finished by others, jokes are “in”, history is shared. Owned by its grounded, wry, Puerto-Rican namesake (Vanessa Aspillaga), as is the rundown building housing questionable tenants, Daphne’s welcomes a core of regulars including:
Vanessa Aspillaga and Matt Saldivar
Struggling artist, Pablo (Matt Saldivar), currently a dumpster-diver in service of paintings depicting the discard of people’s lives; Jenn (KK Moggie), a passionate and literally colorful activist with a self avowed ‘Messiah Complex,’; and, Rey (Gordon Joseph Weiss), a middle-aged, hippie motorcyclist who picks up physical labor to support his travels- though completely credible, the least well realized participant. Daphne’s sister Inez (Daphne Rubin-Vega), who married a community-minded, up-and-coming businessman and her husband Acosta (Carlos Gomez) are also omnipresent. These two are economically better off and geographically better situated, yet loyal and generous.
Vanessa Aspillaga and Samira Wiley
When an upstairs apartment is raided by police and DEA who cart off drugs, guns and its inhabitants, the tenants’ 11 year-old daughter, Ruby (Samira Wiley), jumps out a window. She’s found, bruised and cowering, behind the building. Daphne first shelters then reluctantly adopts the emotionally broken girl, but, in essence, Ruby acquires six parents. Over a period of 17 years, framed by the Ruby’s informing us how old she is at the start of each scene, fates, relationships, and some personalities radically alter.
Jenn, whom Ruby identifies as her only honest friend (Jenn has no boundaries), grows increasingly more radical and then unhinged in her attempts to raise awareness about the state of the world. Both Ruby and Daphne develop strong, unforseen bonds with her. Acosta rises in politics eventually yielding to proffered temptations, risking his marriage. Ruby becomes a smart, enthusiastic student, yet her underpinnings are shakier than what’s publicly apparent; she eventually makes a surprising choice. Painful secrets about Daphne and Inez indirectly relate to Ruby. Pablo achieves a kind of fame, yet stays his course. Rey is Rey.
Daphne Rubin-Vega and Vanessa Aspillaga
At an hour forty-five with no intermission, one never feels restless. Director Thomas Kail keeps flow consistent and smooth. Lights dim; evocative piano music by Michel Camilo is heard with such pristine clarity it seems to get inside one (Sound Design – Nevin Steinberg), an efficient swarm of stagehands adjust Donyale Werle’s splendid, weathered Set.
Physical acting adds insight. Pablo is graceful in his skin, while Jenn’s natural eurhythmy seems provoked. Daphne is always aware of gravity. Acosta carries himself with calm confidence. Inez moves in spurts. Ruby is defensive. Ray lolls. Kail serves a cast who knows how to listen, utilizing his staging area with authenticity and creativity. Small business illuminates, the creation of banners and tending to a symbolic plant work particularly well. A parentheses of dancing captivates.
Matt Saldivar, Samira Wiley, Carlos Gomez, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gordon Joseph Weiss
Costume Design (and, one presumes, wigs) by Toni-Leslie James suit place, people, period, and status. Representation of Pablo’s artfully insouciant combinations and Jenn’s various off-the-wall ensembles is inspired.
Vanessa Aspillaga’s Daphne bears a palpable undercurrent of emotion and power that serves as ballast. When she briefly erupts later in the piece, disclosure has all the more effect.
KK Moggie first manifests Jenn as an insubstantial, well meaning spirit, then shepherds her evolution into someone obsessed. The actress might be a bit more frightening.
Carlos Gomez (Acosta) exudes sympathetic warmth and masculinity. Daphne Rubin-Vega (Inez), a thoroughly appealing Matt Saldivar (Pablo), and Gordon Joseph Weiss (Rey) feel completely genuine.
Samira Wiley’s Ruby is always sure the earth will open up beneath her feet. Wisely the actress delivers an unaffected 11 year-old. As the character grows to maturity, Wiley increasingly lets her inhabit her skin. This includes subtle signs of increased alcohol use and volatility. Well performed.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Gordon Joseph Weiss, Matt Saldivar, KK Moggie, Samira Wiley
Signature Theatre presents
Daphne’s Dive by Quiara Alegria Hudes
Directed by Thomas Kail
Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre in The Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
Through June 12, 2016