Friday, February 07, 2020

Crawling with Possibilities: Steppenwolf's Staging of 'Bug' is Infested with a Pesky Sense of Uncertainty -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

by Tracy Letts
directed by David Cromer
Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago
Thru March 15

I have a hard time truly appreciating plays or movies I don't really "get."

There is much to be said about the creativity and originality of works that are surreal, abstract, quite science fictional and/open to wide interpretation, but I generally don't acclimate well to being confounded.

And because Bug--a 1996 play by Tracy Letts, currently getting its first staging at Steppenwolf, where he is now an ensemble member—reaches a point of chaotic confusion not easily deciphered, I can’t quite give it @@@@@ or call it one of my favorites.

But as presently directed by the esteemed David Cromer, it is largely terrific, with the ambiguity seemingly part of Letts’ point.

Tracy Letts is now best known for writing August: Osage County, which—following a 2007 premiere at Steppenwolf that I saw—won him a Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize. He is also an actor, recently seen in Little Women, Ford v. Ferrari and Lady Bird.

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
The Oklahoma native—his mom was the novelist, Billie Letts—has become one of Chicago’s most
successful actors (on stage and screen) and playwrights. He’s also written movies and is now married to a film/TV/stage actress of some note, Carrie Coon, who stars in this production of Bug.

But before I had any idea who Letts was, I happened to see the first production of the first play he wrote—Killer Joe—in August 1993 at the Next Theatre Lab in Evanston.

This was the first play I ever saw in the Chicagoland area, and while presumably persuaded by a stellar Chicago Tribune review, I undoubtedly went in part because it was near my Skokie home.

The show starred a then unknown Michael Shannon—I can’t say I acutely remember him—and though I didn’t realize it until just a few days ago, an actress named Holly Ann Wantuch, who was Letts’ longtime girlfriend until she tragically passed early in 1998.

I do recall there was onstage nudity, and that I quite enjoyed Killer Joe.

In the program notes for this production of Bug—which also contains full frontal male and female nudity—Letts shares that the Gate Theatre in London had asked him to write another play with “basically the same people” as Killer Joe, and that he wrote Bug’s character of Peter with Michael Shannon in mind.

Shannon did star in the 1996 London premiere of Bug, then again in the 2001 Chicago premiere at A Red Orchid Theatre, Off-Broadway in 2004 and in director William Friedkin’s film version in 2006, which helped turn him—quite justifiably—into a movie star.  (He continues to occasionally do local theater and I’ve seen him several times.) 

But in this production of Bug, which I had not seen before as a play or film, Namir Smallwood—who was also excellent in True West last year at Steppenwolf under the direction of Randall Arney, who has a small role here as Dr. Sweet—plays Peter, a Gulf War vet who is now something of a drifter. 

Although I was often able to imagine Shannon speaking the same lines, to his great credit Smallwood makes the role his own and finely enacts the escalating tension—and uncertainty—it demands.

Coon—who has starred in TV series The Leftovers, Fargo and The Sinner, a number of movies and past Steppenwolf plays (like Letts' superb Mary Page Marlowe)—here plays Agnes, a cocktail waitress who onstage never leaves the confines of the motel room in which she resides.

Fearing a visit from her violent ex-husband Jerry (Steve Key), who has just been released from prison, “Aggie” commiserates—and snorts coke—with her friend R.C. (Jennifer Engstrom), through whom she had met Peter, who comes to her room and prefers to smoke crack.

Drug use is rather prevalent in Bug, yet never seems to consume the characters.

Unless it does.

In different yet largely empathetic ways, we learn that both Agnes and Peter have had rather imperfect pasts, and though both remain troubled, there is a genuine sweetness in the affection they develop for each other.

But near the end of an expository first act, which does include a visit from Jerry, Peter finds a bug.

Or does he?

Much of Act 2 has to do with an obsession with bugs.

But are they real or imaginary? Or both? Representative somehow of surveillance “bugs”? A metaphor for romantic insecurities? A result of Peter’s wartime experiences? Part of some human experiments of the Jason Bourne variety? Psychological delusions run rampant?

I won’t say, but honestly even after seeing the play, I don’t really know.

And while Letts notes that he did more research in writing Bug than he has for any other play, even if he had a certain rationale in mind, I’m thinking he would be fine with the audience's ambiguity, even desirous of it.

For the myriad possible interpretations, now in a different world than when the play was written and set, is much of what makes Bug so intriguing.

So I won’t hold my confusion against it as strongly as I have for some plays that really left me perplexed throughout.

But though Bug is undoubtedly a deft piece of writing, with terrific acting here under the direction of Skokie-native turned Tony winner David Cromer, I think it might leave too much for each viewer to decide.

Such as, was there ever really a bug?

1 comment:

Al said...

(Note: this is my impressions from the movie - seeing the play on the 11th!)

You know how when you say something makes your "skin crawl", your skin isn't really moving that way? That's what the "bug" is for these characters - it's a psychological metaphor. It's a way to take thoughts and feelings they're unable to express to others or truthfully examine within themselves, and deal with it by putting it on an outside force. That's why Agnes' final rant has this triumphant, exultant quality to it - she's finally found a way to process the loss of her child by being able to "successfully" process it in the conspiratorial currents of this bug framework.