Bitten by Bug

Lovers Peter (Lance Marshall) and Agnes (Katrina Ellsworth) fight the bugs together.

Tracy Letts's manic Bug, now scurrying underfoot and burying itself under audiences' skin at Theatre Southwest, is the company's — in fact, the city's — most exciting production in recent memory. This is grandiose, over-the-top theatricality, with electrifying staging and rhapsodic acting. The sublime insanity grabs you until you swear, like the sad, deluded characters, that your body itches. Something creepy crawls about in Letts's dingy, interior world. It's an infestation, all right, and like a plague of Biblical proportions, it can drive you crazy. It's called love.

Meet Agnes (Katrina Ellsworth): trailer-trash incarnate, sucking up cocaine like a Hoover. She hides out in a seedy motel in Oklahoma City — Room #13 — far away, she prays, from her abusive ex-husband Jerry (Jeff Kent), who's broken parole and is on the prowl. She lives amid filth and piles of clothes and heaps of garbage. The bed sheets are stained and haven't seen a washing machine for months. Is that mold growing on the walls? Turns out, squalor is a state of mind.

Then Peter (Lance Marshall) is introduced as a fly-by-night acquaintance of R.C. (Michelle Harper), Agnes's lesbian friend and co-worker at the local honky tonk. Suddenly, Agnes's depressing little life brightens. Peter wants a friend as much as she does. Might this lean skinhead be her salvation? Maybe. But then there's that piercing stare, that imperceptible tic, that unhealthy addiction. As Peter stands with a stick in his hands, ready to knock down the chirping smoke detector, it becomes apparent that he might take out Agnes instead. Slowly we realize, if Agnes does not, that this guy's dangerously needy, and dangerously captivating. He confesses that he's gone AWOL, that the doctors infected him during his stint in the Gulf War and sadistically used him as a medical experiment. "They're after me," he wails. Agnes doesn't fall so much as she's bowled over, mesmerized. His paranoid delusions — there are so many, it's useless to count — overtake her too. Then, once they make love, the bugs appear.


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Slowly at first, one or two scamper over an arm or scuttle over the scalp. Soon, though, they burrow under the skin and fester until they have to be cut out. As the delusions envelope the couple, the critters overtake them. By Act II, their bodies are horribly disfigured (the anatomical makeup by Josh Clark is gleefully repulsive). The seedy motel room is draped in aluminum foil — to scramble the bugs' transmissions, so Peter adamantly believes. Cans of insect repellent litter the room, and the dilapidation has increased tenfold. Frantically insane, Agnes and Peter search for the creatures, whose little feet we can hear massing overhead and underfoot. In back of the picture that reminds Agnes of a tranquil "Margaritaville" lurk real cockroaches. The audience shrieks with the yuckiness of it all.

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By the time slimy Dr. Sweet (John Stevens) arrives to convince Agnes to surrender Peter so the good doctor can finish the cure — although we don't really believe him — the sound of whirling helicopters outside the motel tells us the end is nigh. Sweet meets a grisly end, for there's no real contest between him and a schizophrenic paranoid wielding an army knife who's just yanked out his own tooth with a pair of ­pliers. The stage is bathed in eerie blood-red — and buckets of blood — and the couple goes up in a blaze of white lightning.

There's no socially redeeming value to any of this, but it is riveting theater. From the funky lighting by Aaron T. Cook, to the slatternly set with torn Venetian blinds and grimy bed by Stevens, to the sinister sound effects by Andrew Adams, the production is thoroughly under the revelatory direction of Ananka Kohnitz, whose solid, masterful hand guides the action like Toscanini wielding a scalpel.

The extremely capable cast throws themselves into Letts's weird world with fearless abandon, and each is marvelous. Harper convinces with true little gestures, Kent bullies with frightful comic timing, Stevens skids along on his own smarmy oil slick and Ellsworth falls into her gruesome rabbit hole with extreme, sad-sack precision. But it's Marshall as Peter who anchors this production with a performance that's just this side of legendary. From his burning itch, to his shaking hands, to his fearsome gaze, there's not a false move anywhere, and with complete mastery he chases those internal bugs with psychotic realism. Amazingly, he manages to turn the grotesque into the sympathetic. Without doubt, he gives the best performance by any actor this season.

Do not miss shocking, haunting Bug. This play will give you a fascinating new respect for that can of Raid under your sink. Are you scratching yet?

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