Brothers and sisters, if you are a fan of the Good Old Ultra Violence — and I know not everyone is — Bug is the place you should be. SeeNoSun Onstage gives this delightfully demented early Tracy Letts play a bravura performance, so that for the next few days you will be unable to scratch an itch without thinking, however fleetingly, of the possibility of Mind Control.
We are in territory familiar to fans of the playwright: the Oklahoma wastelands, populated by Agnes (Kimberlee Wolfson), an anxiety-racked druggie, her brutal ex-con ex-husband Jerry Goss (Aaron Tone) and Peter Evans (Matthew Marcus), who appears to be one of the lost boys but who carries with him a mind-blowing secret, if it is true. In short, we are seeing America’s Least Wanted, whose compelling story becomes something with which even the Kardashians could not keep up.
Peter is a homeless drifter who drifts into Agnes’ motel room. He is without affect and seemingly without backstory, but once he lands in Agnes’ bed, and her body, his focus becomes much clearer. Tiny bugs, which no one else can see but which he is convinced are blood-sucking aphids, have infested the room and he knows who is responsible: the United States Army, with an assist from the CIA. Agnes, for reasons that become apparent later on, buys in.
This phantasmagorical danger blocks out their awareness of the much more real danger offered by Goss, an abuser who considers Agnes to be his property and pays Peter about as much attention as he would pay — well, as he would pay a bug. The outside world also intrudes in the form of Agnes’ buddy RC (Jennifer Osborn), who sees Peter, correctly, as a dangerous psychotic who threatens her friend, and Dr. Sweet (Dave Gamble), the medic sent to fetch Peter back to the hospital, who makes a disastrous decision to play along with their paranoid fantasy.
Life is full of catastrophic mystery. The appeal of paranoid fantasies is that they explain the catastrophes much more satisfactorily than attributing them to the unknowable plan of God. Thus your twelve-year old daughter died of cancer not because of genetic mischance but because the CIA, working through the school nurse, planted something in her body; and your wife left you not because you drink too much but because she had finished her mission from the NSA and was now in a safe house. A catastrophic mystery, a huge one, happened to Agnes, and Peter’s paranoid fantasy, as gruesome as it is, gives her an opportunity for closure.
Well, enough of that. Let’s talk about the performances, which are out of this world. Tone, an excellent actor we see far too little of in DC, is superb as the horrifying Goss. Tone is a big, powerful-looking man; with his grizzled face and Fu Manchu, he looks just like he’s supposed to look — a man fresh out of jail after pulling two years for armed robbery. We know from his performance not just what he is but what he imagines himself to be: a charmer who can put on a sheriff’s hat if there’s a need to knock some sense into the womenfolk.
Marcus is excellent when Peter is in the grip of his paranoia, avoiding staginess and being real at every moment. But many good actors can do that; where Marcus really shines is in the opening moments, when he appears as one of the Hollow Men, except unemployed. Everything is grounded in reality: he is hurt, wounded, cagey, defensive, but never actorly or hamhanded. At his best, Marcus reminds me of a young Karl Miller, who was the most natural-seeming actor I’ve seen on the Washington stage.
October 8 – November 1, 2015
at Anacostia Arts Center
1231 Good Hope Road, SE
Wolfson is similarly nuanced. Aggie is frightened, angry, and defensive, but what she mostly is is starved — for affection, for approval, for recognition as a human being. When she gets it from the seemingly harmless Peter, she scarfs up his diseased fantasies as readily as she scarfs him up. Wolfson gets all of this, and masterfully steers her character from the frightened and cynical forty-year old she is at the outset of the play to a woman whose paranoia makes her — there is no other word — bug-eyed.
Osborn and Gamble are convincing in subordinate roles, and are authentic in scene with the other actors. When so much goes right, credit should go to the director, so here it is: Michael Wright has done a hell of a job with this show, including a meticulously constructed (and uncredited) set and fabulous effects makeup by Alex Brewer.
William Friedkin directed a movie from this play. It’s a good one, too, with Ashley Judd and Harry Connick Jr., and it is periodically available on TV. But it is better to see it in the intimacy of the Anacostia Arts Center, where you can smell the fear, and see the characters disintegrate before your eyes.
Bug by Tracy Letts . Directed by Michael Wright . Featuring Kimberlee Wolfson, Matthew Marcus, Jennifer Osborn (who was also the costume designer), Aaron Tone and Dave Gamble . Lighting design: Colin Dierk . Fight Choreography: Todd Fleming . Effects Makeup:Alex Brewer . Stage Manager: Max Appelwhite, assisted by Lakishia Young . Produced by SeeNoSun Onstage . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.