Insect Repellent [by James Wenley]
I’ve admired Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts’ work in Dallas trailer-trash set Killer Joe (his first play in 1996) and pill-popping American domestic-epic August: Osage County (2007). The Real Theatre Company, under Director David Coddington, have produced Bug (1997), Lett’s second play, and the first of which I haven’t been impressed by. Don’t expect Osage, it’s more a lesser Killer Joe.
Bug has Letts’ standard theme of the diseased American dream. Chain-smoking and desperately lonely Agnes (Jo Lloyd) is holed up in an Oklahoma motel room, hounded by phone calls from who she believes to be from her ex-con/ex-husband Jerry Goss (Chris Molloy) who is out of prison and trying to track her down. Agnes is introduced by her friend R.C (Tui Peterson) to Peter Evans (Alex Ewan), an ex-vet on the run. Put together in the motel room, Agnes and Peter are a volatile combination as they descend into their delusional world of paranoia, secret medical experiments, and an infestation of bugs that live under their skin.
Performance quality is scattered, and while accents slips make for an easy criticism, I found it especially distracting in this production, with Tui Peterson a prime offender. The characters of Agnes and Peter are the pivots of the drama and get the most stage time. Jo Lloyd is gutsy and has a strong focus on her outer actions, but together with Alex Ewan, the performance intensity is often too small for the stage. Only Chris Molloy and Edward Newborn (appearing all to briefly as Dr Sweet) rise to the potential of Letts’ chewable dialogue.
“All we ever do is talk about bugs” whines Agnes to Peter, and it’s a fair complaint. The play gets a bit stuck in Act One as Peter becomes obsessed with the bugs he believes his afflicting him. It’s easy to characterise a character as paranoid on the stage, but much harder for the audience to feel it alongside them. Put against the tricks of Silo’s recent production of Herzog’s Belleville, Bug comes away impoverished. The shorter Act Two livens up when the Motel walls are tinfoiled over and Agnes and Peter work themselves up as they put together an alternative conspiracy narrative on the action of the previous act. The ending is an easy way out, leaving other plot points unrealised, as if Letts had had enough of the lot of them.
It’s the little details that I’m most concerned about with this production: the light from an overhead window that is perpetually bright (even at night), the interior light fixtures that come on without a switch being flicked, the NZ smoke package, Pam’s brand fly repellent, and the stage hand who changes the set wearing reflective white writing on his garments. They add up to a haphazard level of directorial attention, which is summed up for me by the fact that the playwrights name does not appear in the production’s program. AT ALL. That’s surely a rights violation and definitely a disrespectful oversight. It really tells you all you need to know about this production.
Bug is presented by The Real Theatre Company and plays at The Basement until 27 September. Details see The Basement.