A creepy, crawling production

Maeve Scullion with a first night review of Bug at the Burton Taylor Studio.

Bug has the makings of a play around which reviewers would, if feeling generous, throw around the phrase, “couldn’t keep your eyes off”Compelling, yes, but this raw black comedy makes for such uncomfortable abrasive viewing that it’s probably more akin to rubbing one’s eyes across sandpaper. Personally, I rather enjoyed the experience.  Readers who have squirmed at the previous analogy might not get the same kick out of a play where scenes of mutilation – admittedly, more mental than physical – abound and where the plot revolves around an ‘infestation’ of “bloodsucking aphids”.

With Bug, Tracy Lettspresents us with the old cinematic tropes of the white-trash neo-Western – Agnes White (Jill Hanley), a middle-aged waitress, holed up in an Oklahoma motel, is hiding from her abusive ex-husband Jerry (Barney Fishwick) – and relocates it within the paranoia of 1990s America with the introduction of a drifter, Peter Evans (Henry Faber), a Gulf War veteran and delusional neurotic with a string of conspiracy theories.  Illias Thoms’ directorial decisions are acutely sensitive to this blend.  Lighting and set design collaborate cleverly to cover the dingy motel room, replete with empty tequila bottles and other tokens of blue-collar blues, with a cold unnerving light that bounces off Peter and Agnes’ newly-spun tin-foil cocoon.  With this, I suspect that the production team may have borrowed quite a bit from the 2006 film adaptation – I suppose when Hollywood kindly grants you the rights to use the movie poster on all your marketing material, you may as well take a few tips from them too.

Jill Hanley and Henry Faber are both very strong leads.  Initially, Hanley fails to present Agnes as anything remarkable.  Fidgeting and sighing, yet, deadpan and expressionless, she draws attention but doesn’t invite curiosity.  However, Hanley more than redeems an uncertain start with her gradual descent into an insanity that swings between stark and subtle in a very believable way.  What the character of Agnes lacks in gusto Faber more than makes up for as Peter.  Faber is a tornado of energy who, at one point, goes completely red in the face with convulsions.  (10/10 for effort.)  With an incredible control of voice and gesture, he plays with his lines with an acrobatic talent, but such an intense character can be exhausting for the audience; at times, I felt I was watching Jim Carrey playing ‘Rain-Man’.

The supporting cast also had its merits.  Fishwick, playing Jerry Goss, a stock character wife-beater (complete with wife-beater vest), played up to the role very well and made new the ’Burton-Taylor long-pause-and-intense-stare’, as he held the audience in anticipation of his next drawling intimidation.  Though as an actor Illias Thoms gave a short but memorable cameo as Dr. Sweet, as a director, he is more promising, orchestrating an almost perfectly paced performance.

Four stars ****

Maeve Scullion