Inside D.C. entertainment

Flea Bites: Come. Sit. Stay.

January 20, 2011 - 10:00 AM
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TBD is following Forum Theatre's production of One Flea Spare behind the scenes, from start to finish. Previously: The First Read.

"Let's start looking at scene three on its feet," says director Alexander Strain. Davis Hasty, the actor playing Bunce, a sailor who may or may not have the black plague, promptly sits down, sprawl-legged, on the floor. "On its feet" means out of the chairs where Hasty and Andy Brownstein, who plays Mr. Snelgrave, the wealthy owner of the quarantined house the sailor has broken into, have been reading their lines. "On its feet" means actually acting.

The actors are in the same orange classroom that held last week's first read. But this time, gray tape demarcates the edges of the stage, and where certain elements of the stage will be.

"I have an image in my head of Snelgrave in the window," says Strain. "Let's establish that in this scene. Go to the window before you talk to him."

Brownstein, goes to the gray square on the floor that represents a window, lingers momentarily, and then rolls Hasty a shiny red apple. Hasty scoops it up, and smells it, his eyes practically bugging out. "I haven't seen one of these in weeks," he says.

The scene is the first to establish the true dynamic of the two characters, trapped in Snelgrave's home due to a government quarantine during the black plague. Because he is poor and a sailor, Snelgrave keeps Bunce locked in a separate room of the house from his wife, and a mysterious girl who has also sneaked into their house. Scene three allows the two men to establish a rapport, but also for Snelgrave to assert his superiority over Bunce. That's why Strain is working with the actors to develop a visual language of authority — cane rapping, and the careless throwing of objects, expecting others to pick them up — that will stay with the character throughout all of his scenes.

"I thought I wanted you to sit, but I like you standing," says Strain to Brownstein.

"It emphasizes the power difference," says Brownstein.

Hasty, meanwhile, was shifting around as he sat on the floor.

"Are you comfy?" asks Strain.

"I'm trying to experiment with different ways to sit like a sailor with a hole in his side," says Hasty. Bunce has a mysterious wound that never heals. "It would be cool to go from a primate physicality and evolve throughout the play." As a joke, he pretends to scratch like a monkey.

Strain institutes a cane rap at a point in the men's conversation when they're discussing Bunce's bawdy sailor days, pre-plague. The cane becomes a way for Snelgrave to beckon to Bunce, and later other characters — with a series of multiple taps, he summons Bunce to his side like a dog.

As Bunce recalls his days on the sea, it sends Snelgrave into a reverie about his own nautical history, which was confined to a desk for his job with the Navy. Nevertheless, he churns up a fabricated and hyperbolic yarn about shipwreck that Bunce has no choice but to go along with, since he is Snelgrave's prisoner.

"This is a person who has no idea what he's talking about," says Strain. "The modern-day analogy is like rappers talking about growing up in the ghetto, when they grew up in Reston, Virginia."

The two sway together.

"Smashing the small vessel like eggshells against a stone. Oh death, death, death!" says Brownstein.

"Don't hold back — the cheese level can't go too far," says Strain.

Snelgrave collapses from emotion on a small Rubbermaid tub that will later be replaced by a real chest in the set. Unfortunately, it's not a sturdy tub, and the lid sags.

"That's not going to sustain me," says Brownstein, and he's urged to use a chair instead, for now. His character wants Bunce to demonstrate his knowledge of knot-tying, and he throws some rope on the floor for him to fetch.

"The dog image is great," says Strain. "You're making him understand who's boss."

"I start with a treat, make him go through training, and then he gets another treat," says Brownstein. At the end of scene three, Snelgrave gives Bunce a handful of nuts. There's a brief discussion of what nuts would be best — perhaps almonds? One of Forum's subscribers, who have been invited to watch the rehearsal chimes in.

"Brazil nuts," he says. "Because he's a sailor who has been around the world."

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