Review by Joseph L. Lewis
Photo by Amanda Mueller

I walk into darkness. I hear sounds of passing cars ringing throughout the remote Oklahoma desert. The crickets are in tune with the creatures of the night. I proceed to walk into a dingy motel room. A used crack pipe sits next to an ashtray full of old cigarette butts. A collection of empty liquor bottles sits on the nightstand and the kitchen table. A newer collection of full liquor bottles replaces missing books on the bookshelf sitting between the front door and the head of the unmade bed.  Dirty clothes lie everywhere. I can almost smell the stench of stale food, street drugs, and cheap liquor. I can’t escape the possibility of an infestation.

Tracy Letts's play Bug is a disturbing black comedy about love, sanity, madness, and paranoia. In it , drug-addicted cocktail waitress Agnes seeks refuge from her abusive ex-con husband, Goss, in a dingy motel room on the outskirts of Oklahoma City.  While in hiding, Agnes's lesbian biker friend, R.C., introduces her to a coy Gulf War drifter named Peter. Agnes and Peter's platonic relationship soon becomes intimate once Agnes tells Peter about her missing son, while feelings of paranoia and fear trigger the couple's descent into madness.

Director Caleb Knutson's adaptation of Bug at SVSU was a compelling production, primarily because Knutson trusted Letts's vision.  Probably the main challenge confronting a director of this play is how to convey a love story within the realm of madness and at the same time provoke the audience into questioning the idea of sanity both within the context of the play and the context of "reality." Knutson grappled with this concept in his production, and there were points in it when the story overpowered his ability to convey the imagery and emotion wrought by such a powerful script.

Overall, I appreciate the performance by the cast. The supporting roles of R.C. (Erin Ciesielski), Goss, (Bear McBride) and Dr. Sweet (Christian Schwager) all complemented the roles of Agnes (Christal Schoen) and Peter (Randall Manetta).  This complementary relationship created a consistent pace to the developing action.  At some points, Agnes's and Peter's performances were exciting.  For example, in the final scene, the audience comes to the apex of the characters' descent into madness.  Once Peter convinces Agnes that the motel room is infested with aphids, it does not take long for the two to weave a calico of words that supports wild ideas of conspiracy.  This climatic resolution is typified once Agnes and Peter decide to commit suicide. 

At some points, however, I questioned the portrayal of the events leading up to this climatic resolution.  The scene in which Agnes and Peter make love is one example. When Agnes tells Peter about her missing son, her powerful display of emotion triggers Peter's emotions.  As a result, Peter is inclined to have sex with Agnes, putting an end to countless years of celibacy. Once Peter tells Agnes that he wants to make love to her, she experiences a whirlwind of emotions, then replies: "Come here, Boy." This scene is crucial because it marks the beginning of Agnes's descent into madness.  The audience learns later that the sex between Agnes and Peter actually aides in the alleged government conspiracy. Yet in this production when Peter asked Agnes about her missing son, he seemed a bit jovial, which compromised the intensity of his character. After Agnes stated, "Come here, Boy," her back was turned to the audience; as result, the audience could not see her expression, which also lessend the intensity required to properly execute this scene. All in all, I was able to sense the intense moodiness in some parts of the drama but found myself searching for it others.

When I first heard that Letts's play was going to be performed as a senior project, I wondered how the director was going to convey such a powerful and disturbing story.  I also wondered how the director was going to deal with graphic scenes of violence, nudity, and self-mutilation.  While I believe that Knutson missed the mark at conveying some parts of the drama, I also believe that he held his own in others.  His adaptation left me questioning the actual existence of the bugs and the sanity of his characters. I had to wonder, "Do the bugs actually exist, or are they just figments of my imagination?"

© Joseph L. Lewis, 2009