Photo credit:Corps Ensemble
Cast adrift in a Grand Guignol styled Bug lite
To many, Tracy Letts is that American actor you often see in programmes like ‘Homeland’ where he, yes he, usually plays a senior CIA strategist or government official. Many are often surprised to learn that this Tulsa born native is both a Tony and a Pulitzer prize winner, and arguably one of America’s most important contemporary playwrights. Several of his works, including the award winning ‘August: Osage County,’ and ‘Killer Joe,’ have been adapted into movies. As has his sometimes problematic ‘Bug,’ the 2006 movie of which starred Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon - the latter also being in the original theatrical production - and directed by ‘Exorcist’ helmsman William Friedkin. Problematic because of its dark, demented, psychologically disturbing themes, which prompted Friedkin to declare it, “the most intense piece of work I've ever done.” On paper, The Corp Ensemble, who aim to deliver challenging work that is visceral and vital, would appear to have found a marriage made in heaven in ‘Bug.’ Unfortunately, it proves a bridge too far in a production that never achieves any of the intensity Friedkin talked off. Indeed, what little intensity there is never rises above that of a Grand Guignol horror show, where excesses of blood are accompanied by peals of laughter, in a production full of sound and fury but not really signifying much.
‘Bug’s’ straightforward plot follows the enigmatic Peter and the damaged Agnes, both locked in a motel room outside Oklahoma City, as their sanity unravels and they withdraw further and further from the real world into their own, bug infested universe. Agnes’ jailbird ex-husband, Jerry, and her lesbian friend R.C., watch their descent unable to do anything, and the arrival of Dr Sweet could possibly mean fatal consequences. Structurally, the opening sequences to Letts' taut script establishes context and sets matters in motion, as if pulling back a slingshot ready for release. This production, however, simply sets up a context that is not really convincing, nor is the follow through. Indeed, the very heart of ‘Bug’ is bypassed in an effort to craft a production built around some sort of imagined psychological state divorced from the conditions and the culture that gave birth to it.
‘Bug,’ like ‘August: Osage County,’ is steeped in the culture from which it arose. Like O’Casey’s Dublin Trilogy, where notions of Irish identity and lived experience inform everyone and everything on stage, Oklahoma and its lived experience feature at the core of much of Letts' work. And here lies one of the fundamental flaws in director Jed Murray’s approach. It fails to recognise that ‘Bug’ is not simply a dark, psychological study, but an interrogation of Oklahoma itself, of a great State self-destructing in the grip of paranoia and irrationality. A no holds barred look at that Midwestern, Republican, buckle-of-the-bible-belt mentality that informs the Sooner State’s white, trailer trash population where God, guns and government keep the right-wing shock-jocks and pastors earning a healthy living. A culture with too casual an acceptance of the meth pipe, too little acceptance of sexuality. Where men are always ‘good ol’ boys’ and the women all American honey, with both being deeply damaged by religious indoctrination, conspiracy theorist and paranoia about government control. Reduced to a psychological study without understanding the conditions that create that psychological state, Murray’s approach creates a vacuum that never connects with the heart-breaking vulnerability and loneliness, the obsessive insecurity and co-dependency lying at the heart of ‘Bug.’
With that basic piece of the foundation missing, the rest suffers accordingly. A strong cast fight valiantly to bring it all together, but in the absence of a central fixed point, they often look adrift. Five strong performers individually, but with no unifying vision, seeming to flounder at times, always striving to find something cohesive, something to hang on to or to push against. But it's just not there, and what should be intense, harrowing and heart breaking ends up reduced to producing a few dark laughs amidst the healthy doses of Grand Guignol theatrical blood.
Michael Bates as Dr Sweet does well during his brief cameo, but Edwin Mullane doesn’t really come to grips with the ‘good ol’ boy’ mentality that underscores his character, lacking both charm and underlying menace. Mary Murray as Agnes is perhaps most poorly served of all, with her aging woman with a heart breaking secret never really evoking sympathy. Physically looking like a paranoid Forrest Gump, Rex Reed’s energetic performance as Peter seems to channel Michael Shannon a little too much on occassion. As a result, the sparks never fly between Peter and Agnes and their relationship never really ignites. Only Toni O’Rourke as R.C. manages to come to grips sufficiently with her troubled character to offer something both credible and effective. Andrew Murray’s set design functions well as a motel room, but the manner in which he utilises the restricted options of The Viking Theatre to craft a significant scene change is a move showing a hint of genius.
If American actors are often condemned for the inconsistency and poor quality of their Irish accents and of failing to understand a culture other than their own, that same criticism holds true here in reverse, with only O’Rourke hitting the accent right and hitting it consistently. Despite all its huffing and puffing, The Corps Ensemble’s ‘Bug’ never blows the house down. It wants to be all that, to have that venom and visceral intensity, but it just isn’t there. Something director Jed Murray needs to take responsibility for. A work like ‘Bug’ asks big questions in every sense and they just weren’t answered. The Corp Ensemble need to regroup and ask some questions of themselves. And one hopes they do. For their ambition is to be admired and they do have the potential to do amazing things. As The Corp Ensemble demand the highest standard and can achieve that standard, they deserve to be held to that standard. Jed Murray’s recent ‘Made in China’ showed just what he can do, Edwin Mullane has frequently shown he has some serious talent and Rex Ryan is rapidly becoming one of the most interesting stage actors of his generation.
Bug by Tracy Letts, produced by The Corp Ensemble runs at The Viking Theatre until September 24th.
Show begins 8pm
For more information visit The Viking Theatre