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Theater Review:

"BUG" at A Red Orchid Theatre


A play titled "Bug" is bound to leave audiences a bit itchy and agitated. But Tracy Letts’ 1996 play, receiving its midwest premiere at A Red Orchid Theatre, will most likely prompt audiences to scratch their heads in beffudlement over the playwright’s flat and unfocused script.

Best known for his national and international hit, "Killer Joe" – which debuted eight years ago in Evanston’s Next Lab – Letts certainly has an affinity for capturing the empty desperation of transients and trailer-part denizens through raw, wry and wildly satiric dialogue. But "Bug’s" characters exhibit little or no genuine humanity beneath their gratuitously eccentric facades – even when the two leads are forced to run around naked for no compelling reason.

"Bug" centers on a down-on-her-luck fortysomething waitress, Agnes, who lives in a scruffy motel on the outskirts of Oklahoma City. Tormented by her buffoonish and brutal ex-husband, Jerry (who just got out of jail), she medicates herself with booze and a one hitter. The source of Agnes’ dejection is the disappearance of her young son in a supermarket parking lot a number of years earlier.

When her lesbian-waitress friend, Ronnie, introduces her to an odd but earnest stranger named Peter, Agnes believes she has found the one person she can truly care about and take care of. But Peter turns out to be something of a psychotic – harboring delusions that the U.S. government conducted experiments on him. He believes doctors implanted larval sacs underneath his skin and teeth.

The insects allegedly begin to hatch and invade Agnes’ motel room – even though no one else can see or feel the critters. Peter ultimately convinces Agnes of the insects’ presence and gets her to believe in his overblown conspiracy theories that drive them to a final nihilistic act – a sensationalistic combination of Adam and Eve, the Pod People and just about every bug-themed B-movie from the 1950s.

For all its blistering naturalism, "Bug" is rife with metaphors about paranoia and self-concocted realities. But, because the story is so fragmented and hokey, it renders any multidimensional symbolism laughable. "Bug" is written in the style of an "X-Files" or "Twilight Zone" episode yet lacks the psychological subtlety and sophistication of those shows. Plus brief, unexpected references to Timothy McVeigh and John Doe 2 come out of left field and shed no light on the psyche of terrorists.

Most problematic are the supporting characters. At least Agnes and Peter have a certain degree of mystery and complexity. Everyone else just gets in the way of their story. Jerry is too goofy to be taken seriously. Ronnie is a throwaway character. And particulary disturbing is Dr. Sweet (Peter’s supposed psychotherapist), whose pseudo-alien qualities cause the play to degenerate into cheap sci-fi shallowness.
That leaves us with A Red Orchid’s production – bristling in parts but hampered by unbearably drawn-out pacing and Letts’ half-realized script. Director Dexter Bullard has assembled a top-notch cast – all capable of oozing with deadly-drifter anonymity. They staunchly embody their characters’ soiled and damaged lives.

Michael Shannon, a deep-thinking actor with an extraordinary gift for unpeeling the almost beatific truth lurking inside his enigmatic characters, delivers a breathtaking performance as Peter. He keeps us guessing – all the while winning our sympathy despite his dangerously compulsive and repulsive behavior. Kate Buddeke’s Agnes is no mere washed-up transient. She never lets go of her character’s impassioned optimism in the midst of her hovering jaded sense of nothingness.

Guy Van Swearingen gives his all to the faux-brutish Jerry but has little to work with in the way of a developed character; and Robin Witt’s tough-talking Ronnie comes across as false and forced (more the result of the way Ronnie is written than acted). And the versatile Troy West as Dr. Sweet is hindered by the role’s pointless absurdity.

Besides Shannon’s and Buddeke’s stellar performances, the best elements of this production grow out of the technical elements.

Joseph Fosco’s eerie ambient sound design subliminally carries us into an alternate universe of helicopter blades, trucks zooming on the interstate and the dull hum of an unseen force. Robert G. Smith’s ragtag, cookie-cutter motel room -- complete with an authentically tacky, fluorescent-lit bathroom – adds to these characters’ out-of-sight-out-of-mind invisibility.

The tight configuration of the theater also makes the audience feel like voyeurs, but what they’re peeking into is neither tantalizing nor provocative.•

"Bug" runs through October 28 at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells. Tickets: $12.50-$16.50. Call 312-943-8722 or log onto

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