Friday, October 27, 2006

(photos: Randy Rovang)

Cygnet’s Bug: Paranoia Loves Company


Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Something moaned in the corner, I tried my best to sleep,

It was the bedbug’s mother praying, “Lord, give me some more to eat.”

— Bessie Smith, “Mean Old Bedbug Blues”

The Cygnet Theatre, an amazing company that’s probably less well known than it should be only because it’s stuck out on El Cajon Boulevard near Rolando, past San Diego State and almost in La Mesa, has really gone to the max hyping their latest production, the regional premiere of Tracy Letts’ (that’s a man, by the way) Bug. They’ve strewn postcards all over San Diego showing the play’s male star, John DeCarlo, naked, carrying a can of insecticide emblazoned with the play’s logo. They’ve taken out an ad in the PBS subscribers’ magazine, and no doubt other places as well, warning theatergoers to “brace yourself for the season’s wildest ride!” Cygnet’s artistic head, Sean Murray, has directed this production personally and calls the play “trashy, sassy and with a wicked sense of humor and danger.”

Bug is everything Cygnet’s ad campaign says it is, and more. Written by an actor/author whose best known previous play, Killer Joe, was set in a trailer park, Bug begins as a typical bit of lumpenproletariat fare centered around Agnes “Aggie” White (Robin Christ), a single woman who lives in a motel room in Oklahoma. Sean Murray, who in addition to directing the play also designed the set, has filled the playing space with boxes, crudely lettered with slogans to indicate whether they contain clothing or food, to hint that either she’s just moved into this space or is ready at a moment’s notice to move out. When the play opens, Aggie is getting a series of harassing phone calls and it soon develops that they’re from someone she knows and fears, her ex-con ex-husband Jerry Goss (Cygnet resident artist Manny Fernandes) who’s just been released from prison.

Aggie is a big-time abuser of alcohol and cocaine — she both snorts coke and smokes it in a rock pipe — and she has an unspecified job in a “honky-tonk” which makes us wonder how she can afford all the drugs. She also has a Black Lesbian friend, R.C. (Monique Gaffney), who despite her in-your-face abrasiveness eventually emerges as the voice of reason in this play. R.C. shows up at Aggie’s intending to take her to a party, but she has a quiet young man named Peter Evans (John DeCarlo) in tow and Aggie and Peter are so smitten with each other they abandon all other plans and decide to spend the night together. They don’t have sex the first night — Peter, a veteran of the first Gulf War and the son of an itinerant non-denominational minister who home-schooled him, is a bit on the twitchy side and is clearly carrying a pretty hefty load of psychological baggage that’s kept him from any sexual activity for years — but they do the night after that.

Their lovemaking — signaled by a discreet fade-to-black from lighting director Eric Lotze — comes to an abrupt end right after climax, when we hear Peter’s voice screaming, “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” Since that’s presumably what they’ve just been doing, we momentarily wonder what’s going on until Lotze turns the lights back up and we see Peter in the altogether, frantically searching for the insect that’s just bitten him. Through the rest of the first act he parades around naked, alternating protestations of love and discussions of entomology as he tries to figure out just what sort of bug is infesting Aggie’s room and what they ought to do about it. (The sight of the quite attractive DeCarlo parading around naked on stage through half of the first act — and yes, you do get to see dick — is reason enough for straight women and Gay men to see this play.)

Following an old and basic but still effective rule of play construction, Tracy Letts gives Peter a big speech at the end of act one that helps explain his character but also offers a new set of tantalizing possibilities to be explored after the intermission — during which Cygnet’s stagehands festoon the set with fly paper, fly traps, insecticides, roach motels and just about every other weapon humanity has created in its battle with the arthropods. When Aggie’s ex-husband Jerry, whom we’ve already met in the first act, appears in the second and sees the anti-insect war zone her room has become, he drawls, “Y’know, if I was a roach, I believe I’d take the hint.”

As the play moves toward its climax, Peter’s tales become more fantastic, a veritable conspiracy theory involving everybody from the U.S. military to the Bilderburg conferences. The appearance of Dr. Philip Sweet (Jim Chovick, a distinguished-looking older actor making his second appearance in a row as a scientist in a Cygnet production — previously he played atomic physicist Niels Bohr in Copenhagen), who depending on who you believe is either Peter’s VA psychiatrist or the mad scientist who implanted the bugs inside him in the first place (his knowledge of a dark secret from Aggie’s past certainly hints at the latter), precipitates the final catastrophe.

Bug isn’t exactly a joyous evening at the theatre, and you’d have to have a pretty kinky partner to use this as a “date play,” but it’s great fun in a twisted, sick sort of way. It’s also proof that you can create an edgy theatrical experience without sacrificing dramatic sense; Letts’ script is logical and impeccably constructed, but it packs a wallop nonetheless. After all, we’re living in a world in which newspaper headlines and TV news broadcasts all too often sound like the ravings of paranoiacs (most of whom actually don’t rave; like John DeCarlo in his performance in Bug, they say the most outrageous things in perfectly calm, matter-of-fact voices). Ron Suskind’s book on the “war on terror,” The One-Percent Doctrine, says that at least one “terror alert” that led the Department of Homeland Security to raise the threat level from yellow to orange came from a group of intelligence experts who were convinced that al-Qaeda was sending secret messages to operatives in the U.S. encoded in the “crawl” slogans on the bottom of the screen of al-Jazeera’s newscasts — which sounds like something Tracy Letts would make up and put into the mouth of one of his drug-soaked characters.

It’s an indication both of Letts’ skill as a playwright and the effectiveness of Cygnet’s production that even as Peter’s pronouncements get wilder and wilder we still can’t quite be sure he’s crazy. After all, if the U.S. government could release bacteria into the Detroit airport to see how fast they would spread, feed retarded kids radioactive cereal, march soldiers straight into ground zero right after a nuclear test and lie to them about the risks of radiation, and fund experiments in which gastrointestinal tubes were inserted into children to force-feed them anti-HIV medications in higher than adult doses …

Cygnet’s production of Bug is powerfully acted by a marvelous ensemble cast; the highest compliment that can be paid them is that while you’re watching the play you forget they are just acting. The physical elements of the production are also first-rate. Cygnet isn’t one of those independent theatres that puts actors on stage and then asks us just to believe that terrible things are happening to them; as their insectophobic delusions (if they are delusions) lead Peter and Aggie to wound and maim themselves ever more seriously throughout the second act, the makeup and stage-blood effects are utterly convincing. (Memo to Cygnet: please start crediting your makeup people in your programs. They deserve it.) There’s only one glitch in Murray’s direction and set design: both Peter and Jerry make their initial appearances by casually strolling on stage from the part of the set representing Aggie’s bathroom — and you get the impression this motel was so weirdly designed that each room has two entrances, one of which directly admits you to the bathroom.

If you want a play that reaches out and grabs you — one that shakes the core of your belief systems while still offering a plot that makes sense (at least within the rules of its own internal logic) and characters we genuinely grow to like and care about even as their behavior becomes more and more off-putting — Bug is it. Cygnet’s press kit indicates that veteran director William Friedkin (The Boys in the Band, The French Connection, The Exorcist, Cruising, To Live and Die in L.A.) has filmed Bug with Ashley Judd as Aggie and Michael Shannon, who created the role in the world premiere, as Peter, but this is one time you shouldn’t wait for the movie. See it now, live, in this excellent production that heightens the effect by having real people enact this story in the flesh and in real time.

Bug plays through Sunday, November 12 at Cygnet Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Boulevard, suite N. Performances are Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tickets are $25 for Thursdays and Sunday evenings, $27 for Fridays and Sunday matinees, and $29 for Saturdays. Tickets can be purchased by phone at (619) 337-1525 x3 or online at