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Chicago by John Olson

Bug
Redtwist Theatre

Also see John's review of The Detective's Wife

Bug
Andrew Jessop and Jacqueline Grandt
As successful as Tracy Letts has become as a writer, with August: Osage County playing in huge houses on Broadway and on tour, his Bug is one play which, we might hope, will never be done in a large venue. Establishing a sense of claustrophobia is essential to his story of a Gulf War vet who believes himself to be infested with insects planted by sinister government forces, and what could be more claustrophobic than feeling attacked by forces within one's own body? The action takes place inside the tiny motel room rented by Agnes, an Oklahoma City divorcee who meets and becomes involved with Peter, the paranoid veteran.

In this production, the storefront space of Redtwist Theatre serves the piece perfectly, with the set turning the theatre's tiny auditorium into the motel room. There's even an entrance for the audience through a numbered motel room door next to a retro "MOTEL" neon sign, just past the room's draped window. Viewers are seated on opposite sides of a playing area decorated with grungily realistic props (by Jenny Pinson), like an intermittently working air conditioner, cheap motel furniture, tacky art and a chintzy bedspread. Half the audience is next to a most convincing-looking motel bathroom. The setting is so critical to establishing the suspense of the piece, that sets, costumes and lighting were co-designed by co-directors Kimberly Senior and Jack Magaw. Sounds of the outside world—like semi-trucks rushing down the highway—complete the environment, courtesy of sound designer Christopher Kriz.

All of this is just a backdrop for some top shelf, realistic acting by the cast of five, who could probably be as believable on a bare stage. Most of the stage time belongs to Jacqueline Grandt and Andrew Jessop as Agnes and Peter, who handle the play's early quieter moments as deftly as its later ones when their madness, volumes, and activity levels escalate. Grandt's Agnes is rough and earthy, clearly damaged by the traumas of a failed marriage to a physically abusive man and the kidnapping two years earlier of their six-year-old son. She makes Agnes' seduction into Peter's delusions a subtle but convincing one, maintaining a certain appearance of lucidity even as she believes herself to be inhabited by government-planted intelligence-gathering insects. Jessop plays Peter as initially timid and guarded, also slipping into madness gradually (apparently as his psychotropic meds are wearing off), but arriving at a much more explosive and violent place of self-mutilation and threat to others. Jessop takes advantage of the role's opportunities for flashy acting, but he earns each of his moments. There's great support as well from Tommy Lee Johnston as Agnes' menacing ex, KC Karen Hill as Agnes' lesbian bartender friend R.C., and Michael Colucci as Dr. Sweet.

Bug premiered in 1996, just a year after the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, and Oklahoma native Letts ties Peter's paranoia directly to convicted bomber Timothy McVeigh and even Unabomber Ted Kaczynski to make Bug a commentary on the widespread fears of government conspiracy that surfaced so frighteningly at that time. Letts's trademark caustic humor comes through in places, but more through Peter's critical view of society than from Letts's sarcasm toward Peter or Agnes. His intention seems to be to show us that their delusions are very real to them, implausible and undocumented as they are to anyone else. The two are loners, not only marginalized from society but isolated through mental illness as well, and trapped in their own minds and the tiny little box that is Agnes' motel room.

When you get an opportunity to see such capable actors perform for just 70 (or so) audience members at a time, you don't ever want to pass it up. With Bug, though, it's really the best way to experience this play in the (bug-infested) flesh.

Bug will play through June 26, 2011, at Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr, Chicago. For reservations, call 773-728-7529, or visit www.redtwist.org, at least 48 hours before the desired performance.


Photo: Jan Ellen Graves

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-- John Olson



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