Review: One Flea Spare (Eclipse Theatre)

  
  

Eclipse tightly weaves sexual and cerebral dark comedy

  
  

Darcy (Susan Monts-Bologna) and Bunce (JP Pierson) in Eclipse Theatre's production of "One Flea Spare” by Naomi Wallace, directed by Anish Jethmalani.  Photo by Scott Cooper

  
Eclipse Theatre presents
   
One Flea Spare
   
Written by Naomi Wallace
Directed by Anish Jethmalani
at Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through May 22  |  tickets: $28  |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

Charles’ Law: confine elements together, turn up the heat, watch them expand. Prevent them from expanding, and you watch them burst.

It’s a basic principle of chemistry, and a loose outline for any drama in which characters are trapped together during a crisis. The heat, per se, in Naomi Wallace’s 1995 play is in part the Great Plague that ravaged London during the 17th Century, L-R: Morse (Elizabeth Stenholt) and Darcy (Susan Monts-Bologna) in Eclipse Theatre's production of "One Flea Spare” by Naomi Wallace, directed by Anish Jethmalani. Photo by Scott Cooper.and in part the class and sexual inadequacies of her characters: a wealthy couple quarantined inside their home, and the two poor, desperate scavengers who sneak in for shelter.

Twenty five days into a preventative lockdown with boards and a guard (Zach Bloomfield) sealing the couple’s walls and windows, a young servant disguised as a wealthy man’s daughter (Elizabeth Stenholt) and a sailor (JP Pierson) inadvertently extend the couple’s incubation stay from three more days to a full twenty eight. Tensions quickly escalate.

The plague is only the backdrop in Wallace’s story—to some of these characters, it’s more or less a nuisance than a crisis. The real threats within the estate are offenses to each others’ presumptions and social sensibilities: sexual bargaining, class warfare, homoeroticism…One Flea Spare explores these tasty ideas with a steady mix of poetry and prose, absurd comedy and claustrophobic tension.

Even with violence always looming, and several onstage nods to penetration, the experience is more intellectual than visceral. It’s always satisfying to think about, if Morse (Elizabeth Stenholt) in Eclipse Theatre's production of "One Flea Spare” by Naomi Wallace, directed by Anish Jethmalani. Photo by Scott Cooper.only mostly fun to watch. Underneath the play’s linear-plot exterior lies a mosaic play’s heart, mashing together styles and tones, sometimes with enlightening results; other times, the product is more convoluted.

Director Anish Jethmalani is able to help keep the show grounded in places where Wallace doesn’t, knowing not to overwhelm the tightly packed text. Her straightforward and precise staging provides clarity to themes that could easily otherwise be murky. The cast does likewise. This small ensemble is exceptional, especially Brian Parry as the proud, aging, and sometimes oafish house master. Susan Monts-Bologna achieves sympathy without victimhood as his oppressed wife, and JP Pierson conveys a sense of maturity that’s found somewhere in between a young man’s idealism and an adult’s surrender to reality.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Morse (Elizabeth Stenholt, center) introduces herself to William and Darcy Snelgrave (Brian Parry and Susan Monts-Bologna) in Eclipse Theatre's production of "One Flea Spare” by Naomi Wallace, directed by Anish Jethmalani. Photo by Scott Cooper

 

All photos by Scott Cooper

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After the Fall – a YouTube interview with Eclipse Theatre

Hurry! Only 4 more chances to see “After the Fall”!!

 

Cutting Close to the Bone:

 

A conversation about Arthur Miller’s After the Fall

 

with Director Steve Scott and lead actor Nathaniel Swift

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by Paige Listerud

After the Fall is Arthur Miller’s most personal play. He exposes the implosion of his marriage to Marilyn Monroe, set off by addiction, driven by the demons of childhood sexual abuse and Hollywood exploitation. It’s a play in which Miller acknowledges his own failed attempts to save her from any of it. In the play, Miller’s persona, Quentin (Nat Swift), marvels at and abhors the sexual fascination that Maggie (Nora Fiffer), Monroe’s persona, casts over men—a power that makes her vulnerable to all sorts of exploitation. But even as he attempts to protect her, he acknowledges his own culpability and morally compromised state in succumbing to her bombshell beauty and erotic, childlike nature.

After the first production of After the Fall, taking place one year after Monroe’s death, Arthur Miller was savaged in the press for exploiting his wife. But the play really is a purge and cathartic release of all sorts for Miller. Of all his works, After the Fall cuts closest to the bone. Furthermore it’s a play that covers other purges and other morally compromised states—such as America’s purge of communists, fellow travelers, and other leftist thinkers during the McCarthy Era. It was an era in which the outrageous accusations of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) met with collusion by some fearful Americans, ready to surrender names in order to save their careers, while other fearful Americans maintained their silence about McCarthy’s witch hunt under the peer pressure of Loyalty Oaths.

It was an era for all sorts of moral compromise—not something that Miller’s intelligent and incredibly moral protagonist Quentin can live with very well. If you want to know how Eclipse Theatre has done one of Miller’s most cinematic and impressionistic works, you can now read an array of critical acclaim from the Chicago theater press. (You can also see our in-depth review here ★★★½).  As for diving even deeper into the challenges of rendering this difficult play so well, enjoy our video interview below. Then get thee to Eclipse Theatre before the production closes.

 

 

        
        

Arthur Miller Project: an interview with Eclipse Theatre gang

Talking about Arthur M. with the gang at Eclipse

It’s dangerous to getting together with Eclipse Theatre’s crew of artists. They love talking about theatre as much as I do, so the interview format quickly turns into casual and fun conversation that could have gone on and on if we let it. Artistic Director Nat Swift, who directs Eclipse’s current production Resurrection Blues (our review 3.5stars), JP Pierson, who plays Stanley, and Nora Fiffer, who will perform in their summer production After the Fall, easily demonstrate their company’s dramaturgical drive and intelligent grasp of recurring themes in Arthur Miller’s work. They appreciate Resurrection Blues for its focus on media and I appreciate its prophetic power to show us the dire straits we could be heading for—a perspective that make me the “wonderfully cynical” one in the group. Enjoy.

 

 

 


 

Previous Arthur Miller Project interviews:

    
     

TimeLine Theatre announces 2010-11 season

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“Our 14th season builds on the success and excitement of TimeLine’s past year,” says TimeLine Artistic Director PJ Powers. “As we did with The History Boys and The Farnsworth Invention, we’ll feature the local premiere of a widely renowned play. We’ll present the first production of a brand-new script that we commissioned. And we will dig into Chicago’s past for a revival of one of our town’s most fun and beloved tales. Plus we will soon be announcing a fourth production. It’s a big, ambitious season that will tell the stories of big, ambitious people, and we can’t wait to get started.”

 

The 2010-11 TimeLine Theatre Season

 

 

Frost/Nixon
by Peter Moran
directed by Louis Contey
Chicago Premiere
August 21 – October 10, 2010
 
Frost/Nixon
takes audiences inside the real-life 1977 television interviews between journalist David Frost and former president Richard Nixon. It has been three years since Nixon resigned from office in disgrace. The Watergate scandal is still on the minds of many, but the former commander-in-chief has yet to break his silence about his role in those events. Now Nixon has agreed to be interviewed by the up-and-coming British broadcaster David Frost. Behind-the-scenes it’s a battle of egos for the upper hand in controlling history, but as the cameras roll, the world is riveted by a remarkably honest exchange between one man who has lost everything and another with everything to gain.

 

Mastering the Art
by William Brown and Doug Frew
directed by
William Brown
World Premiere
October 30 – December 19, 2010
   
  Commissioned by TimeLine Theatre Company in 2008 and developed here in 2010, Mastering The Art is a look at the lives of Julia and Paul Child as they meet, fall in love and embark on a transatlantic journey of discovery together. Visiting pivotal moments in their lives — from the table in France where Julia fell in love with food, wine and Paul, to the table in their home where Julia recreated everything she learned in cooking class, to an interrogation room where Paul was grilled by U.S. agents about alleged Communist contacts — this play unfolds the true story of a larger-than-life culinary icon as she and her husband struggle to find themselves as Americans abroad. Mastering the Art marks the first production commissioned by TimeLine to be produced on the company’s stage. The development of Mastering the Art has been partially supported by The Dramatists Guild Fund.

 

Play #3 – TBA (Jan 22 – March 20, 2011)

 

The Front Page
by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur
directed by Nick Bowling
April 16 – June 12, 2011
   
  The Front Page is a 1920’s classic Chicago comedy often considered responsible for defining the newspaper business. Drawn from Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s careers as journalists in Chicago, the play takes you inside the press room at Chicago’s Criminal Courts Building as a group of reporters cover a controversial execution and uncover the rampant corruption, scandal and hi-jinx associated with Chicago politics and journalism. TimeLine is thrilled to revive a quintessential Chicago classic and to highlight for audiences the wealth of local history embedded in this script.

Casting for all productions in TimeLine’s 2010-11 season is still to be determined.

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Into the Heart of Arthur Miller

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Into the Heart of Arthur Miller

by Paige Listerud

It seems like only yesterday we started The Arthur Miller Project. Back in November, TimeLine Theatre was finishing up with All My Sons and Raven Theatre had extended its hit production of Death of a Salesman. I still marveled at the line-up of Arthur Miller works being produced through the 2009-2010 season. To the best of my knowledge, an opportunity like this–to grasp the breadth of Miller’s drama, live, in a single season–is unprecedented, even for a world-class theater city like Chicago. You don’t have to be a theater geek to appreciate what a break it is to see an American master like Miller done comprehensively, and done well, in the course of a year.

Plus, it happened this way without anyone planning it. No theater company coordinated with any other to produce seven Miller plays across the city. They are still not coordinating with each other, not even for advertising purposes–unlike TimeLine, Remy Bumppo, and Court Theatre’s promotional collaboration, Fugard Chicago 2010. In fact, Infamous Commonwealth, TimeLine, and Raven Theatre bid against each other for the rights to produce All My Sons–much to the bewilderment of Miller’s estate, according to Eclipse Theatre’s Artistic Director Nathaniel Swift.

Well, for some reason Arthur Miller is in the Chicago theater community’s headlights this year. Companies needed and wanted to dig into Miller’s canon. When they couldn’t get All My Sons they moved on, not to another playwright but to another Miller play.

So April is here, Easter is upon us; the spring Chicago theater season is about to burst into full glory. Infamous Commonwealth Theatre opened The Crucible last week (see our review) and Eclipse Theatre started its previews of Resurrection Blues on March 25. You can see our interview with Infamous Commonwealth’s Chris Maher and Craig Thompson below. Video of Eclipse Theatre’s theater artists and events are to come.

We hope you’ve warmed up nicely from seeing TimeLine and Raven Theatre’s productions last fall—find our interviews with their directors below.

Covering everything Eclipse Theatre has planned for its Arthur Miller season could be a project in and of itself. But then its mission, unique in the Midwest, is to concentrate upon one playwright per season, supplementing fully mounted plays with further explorations of the playwright’s work in a series of intimate readings and discussions. Eclipse selected Miller’s lesser-done plays Resurrection Blues, After the Fall and A Memory of Two Mondays for full-scale production. As in previous seasons, Eclipse will also employ directors, actors, scholars and dramaturges to enhance their subscribers’ introduction to other Arthur Miller works. It’s all part of the subscription–although, for a suggested donation, non-subscribers can also join in the journey to the heart of Arthur Miller.

If sneak peaks are any indication, that journey will be substantial.

arthur-miller2 First up in Eclipse’s Playwright Scholar Series is a staged reading of Miller’s first full-length play written in 1944, The Man Who Had All The Luck. Held Saturday, April 10, at 2 pm at the Greenhouse Theater Center, the play has the kind of protagonist who reads like the photographic negative of Willy Loman. David Beeves acquires success in every area of his personal and professional life, regardless of the obstacles. “But his good fortune merely serves to reveal the tragedies of those around him in greater relief, offering evidence of a capricious god or, worse, a godless, arbitrary universe.” I guess there are two kinds of tragedies in life: one is never getting what you want and the other is getting it. While we are familiar with the former in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, a work like The Man Who Had All the Luck explicitly shows the playwright delving into the latter.

Swift, who also directs Resurrection Blues this season, particularly looks forward to discussing the theme of “being liked”—the proverbial American need to be liked—running through both plays.

Other Arthur Miller treats:

The Homely Girl, A Life—Eclipse has been contemplating a workshop on a stage adaptation of this Miller novella. At last notice, acquiring rights from the estate were still a little sticky. Stay tuned.

Enemy of the People—discussion will compare Miller’s adaptation to Ibsen’s original work. Hopefully, discussion will resonate with Eclipse’s upcoming production of After the Fall in July and Infamous Commonwealth’s The Crucible going on right now. All three have to do with Miller going before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).

A View from the Bridge—readings from the original one-act version and songs from the opera version. Just this January, Gregory Mosher, once head of the Goodman Theatre, revived this little Miller classic on Broadway with Liev Schreiber and Scarlett Johansson. In a thousand ways, this tense tale of incest and domestic violence just keeps turning up. Its blue-collar atmosphere may enhance Eclipse’s last play of the season, A Memory of Two Mondays.

arthur-miller-marilyn-monroe The Misfits—a reading of the screenplay and discussion of Miller’s life and writing. Marilyn Monroe was with Miller all through HUAC and starred in this, her last completed film, screenplay written by Miller. The shooting of the film was the site of their marriage’s demise. Miller’s last play, Finishing the Picture, depicts the making of The Misfits.

Swift doesn’t mind not getting All My Sons for Eclipse’s season. While a famous Miller blockbuster definitely would bring in more revenue, focusing on lesser-known Arthur Miller works better fits their mission to cover the full arc of a playwright’s career. “Our focus is largely dramaturgical,” says Swift, “to ask how these works resonate–especially now. Not to compete with other companies.” Other companies covering Arthur Miller simply give more context to what Eclipse is doing.

Chuck Spencer blew me away,” says Swift, regarding Raven Theatre’s Death of a Salesman. “I’m looking forward to seeing Incident At Vichy at Redtwist Theatre. A bunch of people are thrown into the same room and it builds terrifyingly with the realization of how bad it’s going to get.”

I’m anticipating how good it’s all going to get, show by show, event by event. Please join us, here and at the theater.


For all YouTube interviews, click on “Read more”


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Arthur Miller Project: Kimberly Senior talks ‘All My Sons’

The convergence of Arthur Miller and Anton Chekhov

2009 was an exceptionally busy and sterling year for Kimberly Senior, going from success to success, from Strawdog Theatre’s early spring production of The Cherry Orchard, to All My Sons at Timeline, to The Pillowman at Redtwist Theatre, to the Pegasus Players Young Playwrights Festival. Meeting us at the Strawdog Theatre rehearsal space, Kimberly generously gave a few minutes of her time to CTB reviewer Oliver Sava (minutes before rehearsal on Strawdog’s upcoming Uncle Vanya) to discuss the process of making Miller’s 1947 play, All My Sons, immediate and it’s additional resonance in the wake of 9/11 and the Iraq War.

FYI: In a forthcoming interview, Nathaniel Swift, Artistic Director at Eclipse Theatre, will also discuss his process in securing the rights to produce Miller’s later works from the estate. The estate had also noticed the surge in requests for rights in Chicago and found it unusual.

 

Kimberly Senior Interview – Part One

 

Kimberly Senior Interview – Part Two

REVIEW: Eclipse Theatre’s “Democracy”

Democracy Is a “Lite” and Casual Affair

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Corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow.  –Abraham Lincoln, 1864

Eclipse Theatre presents:

Democracy

adapted by Romulus Linney
directed by Steven Fedoruk
thru December 20th (ticket info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Lincoln saw it all coming, but could he have anticipated an America as rife with corruption as it was under his leading general? Henry Adams’ novel, Democracy, which forms one half of Romulus Linney’s adaptation, (the second being Adam’s novel, Esther, based on his wife) came from the disillusionment Adams experienced under Ulysses S. Grant’s administration. Idealistic and eager for reform, Adams pinned great hopes upon the rough, honest and honorable military man.

Democracy05 Disillusionment followed hard and fast upon Grant’s 1868 election—September 24, 1869 saw the dawn of Black Friday, a panic brought about by James Fisk and Jay Gould’s attempts to corner the gold market, as well as the severe misjudgments of Grant and his Secretary of Treasury George Boutwell to stop them. Investigation revealed the involvement of the President’s brother-in-law, Abel Rathbone Corbin, but Grant’s association with Gould alone would have brought the scandal right to the door of the White House. In a prominent English journal, Henry Adams anonymously published an article on the scandal, hoping it would be picked up and reprinted often in the American press. It was, but Fisk and Gould never faced prosecution. The crash of Black Friday crippled the American economy for years afterward.

The most corruption Linney’s play touches on is the Whiskey Ring, involving Grant’s appointee General John H. McDonald and Grant’s own private secretary Orville E. Babcock. Even here, Linney only satirizes Grant’s alcoholism and his expurgated testimony. The play doesn’t mention that Grant fired special prosecutor John B. Henderson when he denied Grant’s wishes to hold Babcock’s trial in military court. Grant’s replacement, James Broadhead, not only allowed Babcock to be acquitted but also closed out all the other cases involved.

Material that could provide for four or five satires goes missing from both Adams’ novel and Linney’s adaptation. It becomes quite clear that we are dealing with American History Lite. But what Adams would not bring up out of a sense of delicacy or fear of reprisal, Linney most likely avoids out of our culture’s collective ignorance. If lite is the only way we can take it, all the worse for us, since forgetfulness like that can only leave us wandering in a fantasy theme park of a country–as make-believe as the fictions surrounding George Washington of which old Mrs. Dudley (Barbara Roeder Harris) disabuses the other characters on their day trip to Mt. Vernon.

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Who knows how much anyone is paying attention–since Senator Silas Raitcliffe (Jon Steinhagen) is wooing the recently arrived, beautiful young widow, Mrs. Lee (Rebecca Prescott), and young Episcopal minister Reverend Hazard (Stephen Dale) is in hot pursuit of Mrs. Dudley’s daringly bohemian niece, Esther Dudley (Nina O’Keefe). Director Steven Fedoruk keeps things light at Eclipse Theatre’s upstairs studio and focuses mainly on “who’s zoomin’ who.” He’s assembled an excellent cast in that case, able to handle the unevenness with which Linney has cobbled together Adams’ two novels.

The greater burden may be in portraying the younger couple–given their issues with mortality and proving improvable faith. Linney’s writing also doesn’t provide much in the way of romance for O’Keefe and Dale to connect with. But both actors do maintain the control needed to make their characters’ religious disputes personal and to temper the material’s overweening histrionics.

Democracy07 Linney’s adaptation allows the rest of the cast far more fun. Diplomat Baron Jacobi (Larry Baldacci), lobbyist Mrs. Baker (Cheri Chenoweth), and Mrs. Dudley are a hoot, as we say out here beyond the Beltway. Ron Butts and Sandy Spatz make an amusingly backwoods Mr. and Mrs. President, although why Butts doesn’t push Grant’s alcoholism further is anyone’s guess.

Sen. Raitcliffe and Mrs. Lee explore and expound their passions for politics as much as for each other. They form an arguably perfect pair, since each may be as ethically compromised as the other. Steinhagen, who recently played Judge Brack with sinister sophistication in Raven Theatre’s Hedda Gabler, throws out villainy for the blinkered guilelessness that Henry Adams wrote for the novel’s character—a man who regards “virtue and vice as a man who is color-blind talks about red and green.”

Why neither novel nor play delve much into Mrs. Lee’s ethical colorblindness remains a conundrum, since Raitcliffe throwing away millions of votes makes for less of a wake-up call than Raitcliffe receiving a bribe for his party. Could Mrs. Lee be the quintessential American—less likely to grasp political transgressions, but more able to understand the personal ones, like an errant blowjob or two? As Raitcliffe declaims during one of Mrs. Lee’s parties, politics in a democracy can only be as pure and honest as the people it comes from. A little more sophistication on the part of the American people couldn’t hurt either. A sucker may be born every minute, as another 19th century figure was fond of saying, but we should at least try to have the next generation of suckers be smarter than the last.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

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