Entertainment » Theatre


by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday Aug 2, 2011
James Hayward and Julie Becker star in ’Bug,’ continuing at The Factory Theater through Aug. 6
James Hayward and Julie Becker star in ’Bug,’ continuing at The Factory Theater through Aug. 6  (Source:Flat Earth Theatre)

If Sam Shepard had written a script for "The X Files," the result could very well have been something like Tracy Letts' "Bug," which is both a terrifying study of psychosis and a parody of talk radio- and Internet-style conspiracy ravings.

The play's social messages are plain from the first moments, and in Flat Earth Theatre's production, directed by Jake Scaltreto, the set by itself tells you a lot about the where and whys, giving us instant coordinates both in socio-economic terms and in psychological geography. The action unfolds in a motel room that might well be flea-bitten... and, before long, is overrun with "aphids" that may or may not be part of a government experiment.

We meet Agnes (Julie Becker), the room's occupant, at just about the same time Agnes first meets Peter (James Hayward), thanks to mutual friend R.C. (Emily Hecht). Agnes is still young and pretty, but she's done some hard living in her brief years, and it's not clear whether she's living in a motel because she's at her rope's end or because she's hoping to avoid her ex-husband, Goss (Stephen James Marco). If it's the latter, Agnes is out of luck: Goss, or someone, keeps phoning her and then hanging up, and it's not long after he's paroled that Goss shows up at her door.

By then, Agnes has made a tenuous and unhealthy bond with Peter, who, as it turns out, is AWOL from the Army. He was (or so he says) part of a medical experiment; when his fellow test subjects began exhibiting alarming symptoms, he fled the base and has been scraping by ever since.

But the feds might be closing in even now (why are those helicopters flying overhead all the time?) and even if they aren't, it might be too late: Bugs are suddenly besieging Peter and Agnes, leaving their bodies covered in welts. Sprays and traps don't make a dent, and Peter is convinced that blood-borne larvae are erupting from his pores. It sounds crazy, of course, but both of them suffer from what might be bites. Are they simply out of their minds on cocaine and booze? Or has some kind of science project truly gone out of control?

The eerie biohazard layer of the drama is paralleled by the psychological underpinnings. Goss, violent, volatile, and manipulative, is as much a plague and an irritant as the bugs (assuming they exist), and the pressures of life at hope's end, crowded with liquor bottles and yet hollow, could drive a person crazy even without snorting lines of coke (as Peter proves; he drinks, but he turns down pills and powders).

It's a measure of where we are as a culture as much as how far gone Agnes and Peter are that the very moment that should bring clarity, the entrance of an Army doctor named Sweet (Tim Fairley), only deepens the confusion. Sweet is taken aback by the state in which he finds Peter and Agnes, but he also knows an awful lot about Agnes' past. When Sweet starts talking about protecting Agnes and Peter from evil government forces, is he playing to their delusions in order to gain their trust? Or does he really have an insider's knowledge of a dangerous and ruthless cabal?

Peter accuses Sweet of being an android programmed to appease and then betray them. That seems like a stretch, but it's all too possible that Sweet is a cog in a runaway bureaucratic machine that wouldn't hesitate to grind up the living flesh of American citizens.

Though the play is a product of the 1990s, when domestic terrorism was an all too real and credible threat, it remains pertinent in today's post-9/11 world. Our attention may have shifted to threats from abroad, but the fact remains that our government seems, if not downright sinister, then criminally unconcerned with the lives of ordinary people even as predatory forces (largely economic) close in. Is it possible that madness and even self-destruction are rational options for those left with no other avenue?

Becker traces Agnes' descent into fear and wild theorizing with a note-perfect performance. Agnes is the sort of woman who will choose a man not because he's good for her, but because she thinks he needs her. When Peter's ravings eclipse her own capacity to reason, her thought processes become as intensely unhinged as his own.

Hayward is sweaty and on edge as Peter, who is caught in a perpetual fight-or-flight response. You can believe, watching Hayward in action, that Peter is a paranoid schizophrenic; but you can also believe that he's someone who's seen horrors and is suffering from post-traumatic stress coupled with a healthy dose of terror for his own safety.

This is the sort of play that makes your skin tingle. It also makes you itch all over -- both inside and out.

"Bug" continues through Aug. 6 at The Factory Theater, located at 791 Tremont Street in Boston. Tickets cost $15 in advance, or $20 at the door.

Performance schedule: Thursday, Aug. 4, at 8:00 p.m. (pay what you an this night only); Friday, Aug. 5, and Saturday, Aug. 6, at 8:00 p.m.

For more information, visit flatearththeatre.com/about.html

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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