One Flea Spare

Local Arts Reviews

One Flea Spare

Auditorium on Waller Creek, through Jan. 30

In the program notes for One Flea Spare, produced by Austin newcomers Vernacurious Performance Group, director Brent Cheatham exhorts his audience to feel deeply as a result of Vernacurious' creation; to "laugh when you have the urge" and "release tears that have long needed to come out." I was somewhat encouraged by these comments, grateful for the suggestion that my emotions would truly be engaged. I also admire any theatre company with the cojones to attempt Naomi Wallace's highly poetic masterpiece about the bubonic plague (in repertory with two other challenging modern plays, Stephen Dietz's The Nina Variations and Nicky Silver's Roger & Miriam) on their first time out in Austin. I was stoked to feel as only a theatre person can be, hungry for the play's dark catharsis, its romantigothic subject matter, its throat-knotting language. Maybe that's why I was so disappointed when the play's emotional resonance seemed to miss me entirely. I ended up feeling through most of the performance like I was staring into a bakery window at rows of delectable tidbits, but starving because I couldn't quite reach them.

The play is being performed at the Auditorium on Waller Creek, a resonant space that poses acoustic problems due to its echo. This was exacerbated at first by the performers' European accents (well done, but which required getting used to) and later by the staging of the piece in the round. Although the fishbowl perspective drew me into the subtlety of the characters' struggles, and although Cheatham expertly staged the heightened moments so that they were visible to the entire house, some of the lovely lines were lost.

The in-the-round staging also puts the actors in such close proximity to the audience that it makes us highly sensitive to the performers' styles of acting. There seem to be two styles at work here: the bigger-than-life approach embodied in the caricaturish Mr. Snelgrave of Tim Verret, and the quieter, more realistic style of the other actors. While Verret's Snelgrave might be fitting in a proscenium production at a larger theatre, in this intimate space he seems overly affected and extravagant. As a result, the character evokes little empathy when he falls.

But the naturalism of the rest of the performances evokes nuances that make for some potent moments. This is especially true of Jennifer Nicole Harvey as Morse, a child with a cracked, blackened wisdom due to all the death she has witnessed, and Deneen Frazier as the complex, dynamic Mrs. Snelgrave. Frazier's scenes with Harvey and with Rowdy Stovall (the smoldering sailor Bunce) make for the strongest theatre of the evening.

As written, this piece has the potential for a huge emotional payoff, and I'm sure some productions leave their brand on the psyche for days. Yet overall, this production misses its emotional mark. I could see how I was meant to feel, but I didn't feel it. Vernacurious' One Flea Spare reminds me how difficult it can be to evoke and sustain true emotional response in an audience -- and how hungry we are for it.

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Austin theatre, One Flea Spare, Vernacurious Performance Group, Brent Cheatham, Naomi Wallace, Stephen Dietz, The Nina Variations, Nicky Silver, Roger & Miriam, Tim Verret, Jennifer Nicole Harvey, Deneen Frazier, Rowdy Stovall

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