Rhonda Lee Brown and Chris Reid in Bug.
Rhonda Lee Brown and Chris Reid in Bug.
Michael Ensminger

Exterminating Love

At the beginning, Bug seems hyper-realistic. We're shown a drink- and drug-addled woman, Agnes, living in a motel room on the outskirts of Oklahoma City. The set, by Charles Dean Packard, features a shag carpet and rumpled bed, and it's entirely convincing. We have been here before. It is, among other things, Sam Shepard country -- although the bamboo structure that envelops the set before rising to the ceiling at the play's beginning hints at different territory. To the accompaniment of a monotonously repetitive country song, Agnes smokes and drinks. The phone rings. She answers. It seems that no one is speaking on the other end, but from her exclamations, we learn that the caller has just been released from prison, and that his intrusions are making her angry and scared.

A quiet young man invades Agnes's life: Peter, a hitchhiker whom she met through a lesbian friend. When her drunken, ex-con ex-husband -- the caller -- finally makes his entrance, Peter neither flinches away nor defends Agnes from his violence, but he takes care of her afterward, and the two of them end up in bed together. After what we're led to believe is mutually welcome and spiritually replenishing sex, he wakes, flailing in the darkness. There's a bug in the bed, he insists. An aphid. And it's got to be killed. Naked, he and Agnes pick through the bedding.

After the first act, the action speeds up and, before our eyes, the couple begins spiraling into madness. Eventually, Agnes's cheap motel room is filled with fly swatters, a bug zapper, flypaper, chemicals and sprayers, drums of gasoline. Meanwhile, Peter is raving about matriarchal insects, egg sacs invading his body, bugs multiplying, bugs insinuating themselves into every crevice, bugs feeding on blood, bugs ineradicable and inescapable, bugs acting as transmitting chips for a malevolent government.



1080 Acoma Street,

Presented by Curious Theatre Company through December 17, 303-623-0524, www.curioustheatre.org

I'm not quite sure how to classify this play. It's intelligent, surprising and sometimes funny, and the dialogue rings dementedly true. The script eschews cliche. Contrary to our expectations, the abusive husband -- well played by Michael McNeill -- isn't at the center of the plot; perhaps he exists to show that there's a kind of romantic entanglement even more deadly than marriage to a wife-beater. Although the play is realistic outside the sphere of Peter's madness, it doesn't really invite you into the psyches of the two protagonists. It's not empathy that author Tracy Letts is looking for. Nor does he make Shepard-style jazzy poetry of his milieu. His lowlifes don't fly on image and metaphor but remain entirely earthbound.

There's no reversal at the end of the play, either, no surprising twist that makes everything comprehensible, no real indication that Peter's delusions have some foundation in fact -- a turn of plot we're half expecting.

Peter does tell Agnes that he served in Iraq. He says that the Army imprisoned and experimented on him for four years, and that he went AWOL to escape their torments. It's possible to find some literal truth within the distortions of his account. Beginning with Vietnam, returning American soldiers have suffered strange illnesses. Many Vietnam vets developed inexplicable cancers; some fathered sick children. It was suspected that these cancers were caused by the widespread use of Agent Orange as a defoliant. The GIs endured years of government double-talk, litigation and congressional hearings before some of the survivors received compensation. Many vets who served in the first Gulf War also suffered strange symptoms afterward, though whether because of parasites, chemical or biological agents, exposure to depleted uranium or the vaccines they received, no one could tell. Again the government resisted recognizing these complaints.

But though Peter may have been damaged by his service, the play doesn't really score political points. It's a straight-ahead enactment of a man's descent into madness and the seductive power of madness on a vulnerable woman. There's a great deal of fear, blood and pain involved, making this is a thriller, pretty much pure and simple. In your face. Naked in every sense.

Chris Reid is completely immersed in the role of Peter, and his characterization is nuanced, intense, understated and dangerous. You can feel the character searching for his footing, fumbling desperately for a path through the smothering folds of madness.

I have seen Rhonda Lee Brown in several productions, usually playing assured and wonderfully dramatic women. In these roles, she is very strong. But she's playing against type here, and despite her clear commitment to the role, it doesn't entirely fit. She tends to sound a single angry note too frequently, and she never fully communicates Agnes's loneliness and grief. The problem is that if you don't empathize with Agnes, you're going to resist the sweep of the play, because Peter is far too demented for empathy. Rather than feel for him, he's someone you watch in anguished fascination. On the night I attended, several audience members didn't seem to know quite how to take Bug. Still, I can see why director Chip Walton picked it. There's a lot of power in the script. If for nothing else, the production should be seen for Reid's white-hot performance.


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