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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REVIEW: After the Fall (Eclipse Theatre)

When an intellectual looks for love in all the wrong places

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Eclipse Theatre presents
   
After the Fall
   
Written by Arthur Miller
Directed by
Steve Scott
at
Greenhouse Theater, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through August 22nd  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Arthur Miller just wants to be loved. Is that so wrong? After the Fall, the play that is his sojourn through love’s conundrums and dead ends, bears Miller’s soul for all to see at Eclipse Theatre’s home, the Greenhouse Theater Center. Miller’s devastating marriage to Marilyn Monroe, inextricably intertwined with our country’s descent into OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA paranoid McCarthyism (and Miler’s dealings with this paranoia), really did a number on his head. Shortly afterward, no doubt, the demise of Marilyn herself really, really did a number on his head. The result is After the Fall.

What does one do about conscious or unconscious betrayals—of the heart or of one’s principles? How does one go on after love has died and disillusionment has almost totally taken over? These seem to be the greatest moral pre-occupations for After the Fall’s excessively intellectual protagonist, Quentin (Nathaniel Swift).

But, wait. Perhaps to judge his intellectualism as excessive is a dumbed-down way of looking at him. Arthur Miller flourished in an era when America had many public intellectuals. Those intellectuals were disciplined to constantly interrogate the state of our nation’s cultural and civic life. Now, in the place of public intellectuals, we have talking-point-addled pundits and reality TV show celebrities. In terms of intellectual expression in American civic life, we have become a very cheap date.

Therefore, Quentin’s conundrums may not exactly be ours, whether they are about maintaining a pristine conscience in the middle of fallible human interactions or taking on overwhelming personal responsibility, to the point of seeing the roots of the Holocaust in one’s minute personal betrayals. Quentin suffers from serious survivor guilt. No doubt about it, the man is a survivor—not of the Holocaust per se, but certainly the McCarthy Era.

Apparently, surviving the McCarthy Era can take a lot out of you. As a Quixotic leftist lawyer, tilting against the onslaught of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), Quentin is surviving the purge of leftists from American academia, from American media, from the everyday workplace. Indeed, he is surviving the purge of leftists from American thought. But try as he may, the friends he is trying to save are going down.

Quentin is prepared to defend Lou, his old Communist academic buddy—played with spot-on geeky anxiety by Eustace Allen. Lou is a man on the verge–on the verge of having his career decimated, his livelihood pulled out from under him like a magician’s trick. Other lefty friends, like Mickey (Eric Leonard), are ready to cave into HUAC and surrender names. Meanwhile, Lou’s wife, Elsie (Nina O’Keefe), salaciously comes on to Quentin with Lou not far away and further scenes reveal her to be nothing less than a sexual menace–a menace O’Keefe delivers with just one look.

Quentin is discovering, to his uncomprehending shock, his friends’ morally compromised natures. Even Lou admits to espousing lies in his academic work on the Communist Party. Lou’s book was received well enough during America’s World War II alliance with the Soviet Union but now the whole thing is crashing down upon him.

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Amid all this, Quentin’s marriage is souring and failing like all his other relationships. Amid the ruined lives, the cynical hypocrisy of colleagues distancing themselves from Joe McCarthy’s victims–amid self-compromise at every turn—why can’t our hero get a little love?

Quentin’s wife, Louise (Julie Daley), seems to have nothing more to give. Daley’s tight and sharp portrayal of Louise is by turns both sympathetic and bitterly judgmental. We hear the voice of “The Feminine Mystique” when Louise complains that Quentin doesn’t listen to her, only uses her as a sounding board for his own intellect. But we also hear an older, more Puritanical voice in her petty accusations that he finds other women sexually attractive. He has never slept with any other woman and feels guilty feeling attraction to women other than Louise, but Louise sees his straying sexual thoughts as infidelity and she holds them against him, just as she withholds sex from his attempts to ameliorate the growing distance between them.

There are more painful scenes to watch in After the Fall, but close in the running are Quentin and Louise’s arguments. They are an accurate depiction of two highly intellectual people so lost in their heads they can no longer open up emotionally. Problems that other couples would solve with a good argument, then a good fuck, Quentin and Louise cannot even negotiate without an interpreter. Perhaps divorce is the only thing, since they can’t generate the sexual interest necessary to get over ideological disagreements or personal flaws. What must have seemed like the ideal match in college has turned into a prison for them both.

Perhaps what Quentin needs is a more free-flowing sexual spirit, a woman with a sensual orientation, a woman who lives in the eternal now–maybe a woman who is the sex symbol of the age, like Marilyn Monroe. But it’s grossly unfair to write off Nora Fiffer’s interpretation of Maggie as a Marilyn Monroe imitation. Fiffer takes the role and makes it thoroughly her own. Any inflections she borrows from Monroe make her performance purely impressionistic and entirely original. One can know everything about Monroe’s life and still see Maggie up there on the stage.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The marriage between Miller and Monroe has always seemed like an improbable match; the marriage between Quentin and Maggie, far more realistic. Part of this is Swift’s youthful, corporate, Everyman appeal but another part is Miller’s psychologically acute take on Quentin. If divorce and disillusionment have upset Quentin’s apple cart and dumped him into the realm of uncertainty, then he is starting over almost as new and green as Maggie in her burgeoning singing career.

But Maggie still belongs to a younger, more rebellious, more sexual generation–the 50s generation of Marlon Brando and James Dean. Monroe, Brando, and Dean emerged just a beat before the Sexual Revolution of the 60s, but that didn’t make them any less rarin’ to go. After the Fall’s Maggie anticipates the qualities of the Boomer generation; sexual openness and adventurousness, full embodiment of a “be here now” attitude, childlike narcissism and arrogance, and a propensity to succumb to drug abuse—although it’s just good, old-fashioned alcohol and barbiturates that drag Maggie and her marriage into hell. Quentin really has gotten in over his head with this one.

Watching Swift and Fiffer play out this doomed pair’s degeneration is like watching two perfectly matched martial artists having it out in the ring. Theirs is a confrontation that could easily slip into the clichés of “Days of Wine and Roses” or a million other addiction dramas, but Scott’s direction keeps their battle taut and economical. Eclipse’s production should sell out for their Second Act scene alone.

Happily, the production doesn’t need to rest on two leads. Quentin’s progress through time and memory is an actor’s Iron Man marathon and Swift stays the course, receiving absolute support from the impeccable cast surrounding him. Cast cohesion is no small feat in an impressionistic and cinematic drama based solely on memory and yearning, but hold together they do. Their characters are the skeletal bones of Quentin’s memory and hold the keys to unraveling his perpetual guiltiness. Guilty memory, especially regret over not being able to save Lou or Maggie, has its claws deep into Quentin—to the point where one wonders whether he has more of a love affair with guilt than he could ever have with any woman.

Is that the cornerstone of Miller’s heart—thoroughly Jewish and unceasing guilt? One might consider Quentin’s survivor’s guilt almost pathological; its presence balanced only by the solid family team of Mother (Susan Monts-Bologna), Father (Jerry Bloom) and brother Dan (Joe McCauley). In them one awakens to Quentin’s ethnic roots, as well as his parent’s survivor’s instinct in the face of the Crash of 1929. Quentin supposes he got his instinct from his Mother, rendered by Monts-Bologna with crafty intelligence and comic intensity. Rather than being able to own it, it’s just another thing that makes him feel guilty.

But the truth is that everyone in Quentin’s family can be called a survivor—certainly of the Crash and of any other personal or political disasters that came afterwards. One is always a survivor, at least until one dies. The real question is if life is still worth living after everything else—including justice, love, and principle—has completely fallen apart. Not to diminish After the Fall as being one, big, Jewish survivor’s guilt fest, but the Holocaust is the play’s constant specter, even in scenes when it is never alluded to. Quentin finally finds another love interest in Holga (Sally Eames-Harlan) because she can confirm for him that no one who survived the Holocaust was innocent. Perhaps more than love itself, he needs another survivor to show him how to go on. It’s his final acknowledgment of his need that makes his survival noble.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
    
    

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Extra Credit

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFinal scene of After the Fall

   
   

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