PopCult Theatre Review

First, apologies are in order. Things got busy here and I didn’t get a chance to write and post this review until now. We were able to see this production of Bug two weeks ago.

Be advised, if you are in the Chicago area, you only have a few more chances to catch this play. Its extended run ends Sunday, March 15.

Bug is an early work by award-winning playwright Tracy Letts, and it’s a pretty stark, memorable piece. The action all takes place in a seedy motel room in Oklahoma, and two main characters carry the bulk of the play.

This is either a love story filled with madness, or just a tale of madness with the veneer of love stretched over it. There is drug use, self-harm, murder and full-frontal nudity on stage, and it is all in service to the plot.

Agnes, a forty-something cocktail waitress who has survived multiple traumas is cooped up in the motel, hiding out from her abusive ex, who has just been released from prison. She passes her spare time mostly alone, drinking and smoking crack.

Through one of her waitressing buddies, she meets Peter, a conspiracy-minded Gulf War veteran who may be AWOL, and who shows signs of various mental issues. They bond over lonliness, and Agnes falls into Peter’s paranoid schizophrenic fantasies.

The two become convinced that their room is infested with bugs.

Written at a time when conspiracy theories were just beginning to take hold in mainstream America, when the militias were on the rise in the wake of the Murrah Building bombing and the internet was in its infancy. Letts’ play demonstrates the influence that conspiracy theories can have on the minds of the mentally vulnerable. Even in his early work, his ear for dialogue is amazing, and all his characters come across as strikingly real.

This production is stunning. Carrie Coon as Agnes and Namir Smallwood as Peter deliver performances that rank among the finest I have ever witnessed. They make their characters real and credible. Unless you have been blessed to live a very sheltered life, you’ve probably met people like Agnes and Peter.

Both actors (seen left and below) are powerful and unafraid to depict the descent into insanity that these characters suffer. Fully nude for a significant portion of the play, their tenderness toward each other as they isolate themselves from the real world and ultimately destroy themselves is stunning. The audience can’t help but root for Agnes and Peter until it becomes absolutely clear that they are doomed by their own actions.

When the play was over, there were parts where I wasn’t sure if I was seeing a depiction of what really happened, or if what happened on the stage was, in part, the delusions of Agnes and Peter being acted out. It’s a powerful play that can mess with your perceptions that way. Bug is a black comedy, but it’s more provocative than many dramas.

Coon and Smallwood play their characters as real people. They do not look down on them or turn them into cartoons. You leave the play convinced that you’ve met real people.

Acclaimed director David Cromer (The Band’s Visit) creates what becomes the entire universe for these two characters in one small hotel room. The Scenic design by Takeshi Kata deserves no small amount of the credit, as the room almost becomes an additional character in the play. Lighting and sound effects add to the atmosphere.

This production of Bug is an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime theatrical happening. I can’t imagine anyone topping it, but I can also see that performing this would have to be emotionally and physically draining. There is a film based on this play, directed by William Friedkin, and it’s good, but it’s nowhere near this production in terms of performance or power. This production is as perfect as live theater gets. If you have a chance to see one of the remaining performances, don’t miss it.