by John Stoltenberg
When I saw the SeeNoSun OnStage production of Tracy Letts’s first play, Killer Joe, a year ago June, I wrote a rave and called it “a powerful knockout of a show.” So it was with keen anticipation that I approached the company’s new production, Tracy Letts’s second play, Bug, again directed by Michael Wight and again featuring Jennifer Osborn.
Better? worse? about the same?
OMG it slayed me.
The script is a classic Letts combo of kooky Okies, pitch-dark comedy, bizarro derangement, and a jaw-dropping plot. Letts is one of theater’s finest twofers: He is a Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright (for August: Osage County) who, because he is himself an accomplished actor (he got a Tony Award for his George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), writes roles and scenes so gosh darn playable they sweep actors and audience alike into a perfect storm of powerful performance.
And that’s exactly what happened last night at the Anacostia Arts Center.
Bug is set in a seedy motel room where the high-strung forty-something Agnes (a fascinating Kimberlee Wolfson) has holed up. She has been getting harassing phone calls and hitting the booze hard. Her lesbian biker buddy RC drops by (Jennifer Osborn, giving another stunning performance). They work together as cocktail waitresses. They do lines of coke together. They dump on Agnes’s abusive ex, who to Agnes’s alarm has just been let out of prison and has reason to come after her. Then the two substance-addled BFFs commiserate about their kids. RC’s lover just got custody of theirs. Years ago Agnes’s was abducted from a shopping cart in a supermarket. And paranoid mental instability creeps into the play like a steady infestation of pests.
From the bathroom enters Peter, a nerdy Gulf War vet on the lam whom Agnes has taken in. He seems quiet and harmless, with a methodical presence of mind Agnes evidently lacks. Suddenly Peter hears a cricket and traces it to a smoke alarm, which he whacks off the wall. A bit of odd behavior, but not a deal breaker between them. Peculiarly Agnes and Peter become friends. And she invites him into her bed.
Their morning after is devoid of bliss, however, as we see Peter bug out like a banshee when he discovers teensy parasitic insects have arrived in their coital tryst. Matthew Marcus is riveting in the role—he shades every nuance from mild to wild—and the point when Peter thrashes about in paroxysms trying to swat the bugs crawling all over his body is a scene-stealing sensation.
Another uninvited arrival is Agnes’s fresh-out-of jail batterer, Goss (an arrestingly imposing Aaron Tone). Goss is not pleased to find that Peter has had sex with Agnes, and he proceeds to browbeat Agnes and bully Peter—a confrontation that Marcus and Goss play to chilling perfection.
But about the bugs.
Peter believes he has been the subject of a medical experiment during which bugs have been embedded in his body and they are crawling out to feed. The set and sound design (credited to SeeNoSun) subtly incline us to believe him. A helicopter whirs overhead as a looming ceiling fan spins and a tacky AC buzzes. Colin Dieck’s lighting is as credible on as it is unnerving off. The scene-changing blackouts, lit by a blinking neon sign outside, elicit mental pictures by the swarm. Gruesome wounds appear on Agnes’s and Peter’s body (effects makeup by Alex Brewer) lending graphic substantiation. An amiable but not-what-he-seems Dr. Sweet arrives (a persuasive Dave Gamble), and we find out more. Then we witness a grisly end. SeeNoSun’s prominent advisory says: “Bug contains graphic sexual content, nudity, drug use, smoke and violence. It is recommended for mature audiences only.” Believe it.
On one level Bug is a provocative metaphor for conspiracy-theory mania, a theme that Wright—whose direction is utterly lucid—explores in a program note. (In that respect Bug is as timely today as it was two decades ago when Letts wrote it, maybe more so.) On another level—the theatrical playing stage, where live action impacts an audience or not—Bug is a hilarious thriller and a tragicomic romance played with a pace and force that left me agog.