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‘One Flea Spare’ a claustrophobic tale of plague

The first Northeastern theatre production of the academic year, “One Flea Spare,” tells a dark, claustrophobic story of 17th-century Londoners who have been quarantined as part of the city’s efforts to prevent the spread of the bubonic plague.

“At the beginning of the play, this wealthy couple is just about to escape from being quarantined when a sailor and a young girl break into the house,” said Alannah O’Hagan, a theatre major who plays the wife in the production. “And then suddenly they’re there for another 28 days.”

It turns out that 28 days is approximately how long the play’s five actors — the four under quarantine, plus their guard — had to prepare for the production. The play opened Tuesday in Northeastern’s Studio Theatre, the black box performance space located between the Curry Student Center and Ell Hall. The small ensemble cast, like the characters they portray, spent much of the last month together.

“It’s a very rich piece of literature,” said director Janet Bobcean, an associate professor and producer in the College of Arts, Media and Design’s theatre department. “The play, by Naomi Wallace, is based on a John Donne poem, from which she develops very complex characters and really rich metaphor.”

The four characters under quarantine spend the entire play in a single room positioned five feet off the ground — a physical barrier between the audience and the quarantined characters. The guard patrols the space in between, responsible for keeping those inside under lock and key.

“That really translates to what this play is about,” said Rachael Ulrich, a theatre major who plays Morse, a 12-year-old girl who was forced into the quarantine. “As actors we’re stuck, just like these characters.”

The characters, who come from dramatically different social and economic backgrounds, must confront their differences and solve the conflicts they create over the course of the quarantine. That allows the play, Bobcean said, to confront issues that applied not only in 17th-century England but which remain in our world today.

“And what surrounds all this is a society already brought to its knees by the plague,” Bobcean said. “Thousands and thousands of people were dying each year, on top of everything else that was happening in London at this time.”

“One Flea Spare” runs through Saturday, Oct. 20, in Northeastern’s Studio Theatre. Tickets start at $12 and can be purchased online or at the Northeastern box office.