TBD is following Forum Theatre's production of One Flea Spare behind the scenes, from start to finish.
When the cast of a black comedy about the black plague gathers for their first read, they eat strawberries. That, in itself, is a bit of black comedy too, because in Naomi Wallace's One Flea Spare, Forum Theatre's next production, the plague-quarantined characters are always bargaining to get fruit from the outside world. Oranges are currency. Tangerines are worth more. A 12-year-old girl lets a watchman suck her toes in exchanges for apples and berries.
But the cast hasn't gotten to that part yet. It's Forum's first read – the time when the cast and crew sit down together to talk about their ideas and read the script as a group for the first time – and director Alexander Strain is going over a few caveats as everyone finishes up their snacks. He tells the five-person cast that he wants them to perfect the British dialect that the story demands as soon as possible, even if it sounds rough the first time, "So no laughing from the galley," he says, motioning to the Forum crew members sitting around the room. A few of Forum's subscribers are there to see the reading, as well, because the theater gives them the option to attend select rehearsals.
It all takes place in a bright orange crafts room in the Round House Education Center. Across the hall, members of Weight Watchers are having their weekly meeting. Next door, there's a dance class, and the thumping sound of hip-hop bass can be heard throughout the entire reading.
"Be aware of punctuation," says Strain. "Don't rush periods and commas." Wallace uses punctuation very deliberately in her writing, often ending. Sentences. Like. This.
Forum's chipper intern Tenice Divya Johnson has volunteered to read the stage directions in between lines, and you can tell by her strong voice that she is an actress, too.
"Morse locked in an empty room or cell. Alone. She wears a dirty, tattered, but once fine dress," Johnson says.
Morse is the aforementioned 12-year-old girl, who will be played by Sarah Taurchini. Taurchini begins, in a well-rehearsed accent: "What are you doing out of your grave?" Beat. "What are you doing out of your grave?" Beat. "Speak to me."
"We hear the sound of someone being slapped," says Johnson.
"One Flea Spare" is a dark comedy from a dark era set in a dark, claustrophobic space. A wealthy couple, the Snelgraves, have lost all of their servants to the plague, and though they are in good health, their house has been quarantined. To their surprise, they discover that two poor people have broken into their home: Morse, the 12-year-old girl, and Bunce, a young sailor. The house guarded by Kabe, a watchman for the city, so no one can leave. Everyone is suspicious of everyone else. And everyone is filthy.
That's something that Strain emphasized in a post-reading chat. The characters have not been able to shower or bathe, and the stench of dead permeates the city.
"Everyone in this house is gonna be really dirty," says Strain. "I just wanted to prepare you for that."
A tentative plan for stage design has been presented, and it calls for a pool of "filth texture" around the stage. It becomes clear that "filth texture" is going to be the cast's first catchphrase. But don't worry, audiences: They'll spare you from the smells of festering, oozing sores and rotting corpses that are described in the text. Strain jokes about Smellovision, but he'll save it for a sweeter production.
The cast agrees that Mr. Snelgrave, played by Andy Brownstein, has the funniest lines. Here are two of them, out-of-context, in a scene where he allows Bunce, played by Davis Hasty, to try on his expensive shoes: "I have given history a wee slap on the buttocks." "I always think of it as walking across the hands of children."
But the play switches quickly back and forth between humor and tragedy. After one particularly fraught scene, an older woman in the subscribers section looks visibly distraught and moved. When act one ends, stage manager Stephanie Junkin clicks her stopwatch.
"An hour eight," she calls out.
"The second act is much shorter," says Strain. He tells everyone they can take 10, and they get up for snacks and bathroom breaks. The strawberries are almost gone. The cast mingles.
"Can I ask you how old you are, Davis?" says Taurchini.
"Can I ask you?" he replies.
"I'm 12," she jokes.
"I'm 25," he says. His birthday is opening night.
"I had an opening night on my birthday once," says Taurchini. "I was 22."
Their talk turns to food.
"Do you want Morse to be skinny?" Taurchini asks Strain.
"We're free-form. Eat what you want," he replies. Like ice cream: Strain tells the cast that the Ben & Jerry's around the corner sometimes has a three-scoops-for-three-dollars deal.
"It's like a pint," he says. "You've just consumed 3,000 calories."
Back to the play, where everyone is rationing their food, and starved for affection. Touch, says Strain, is very important to One Flea Spare. Darcy, Mr. Snelgrave's wife (played by Nanna Ingvarsson), longs to be touched. Everyone is afraid to touch Bunce, because he is wounded and could be contagious. Morse, the child, wants to touch everyone. Mr. Snelgrave's touch is frightening. In the first moments of act two, Mr. Snelgrave gives Bunce an orange. In the final moments of the play, Morse tosses an orange. The reading ends quietly, with an almost-stunned moment of silence, and then a round of applause.
As the subscribers put on their coats and file out of the room, one of them calls out to Strain.
"We're looking forward to seeing it," she says.
"I'm looking forward to bringing it to you," he replies.