Playwright: Tracy Letts
Company: Equinox Theatre Company
Running Time: 2 hours (includes 15 minute intermission)
Date of Performance: Friday, August 29, 2014 (Opening Night Performance)
Bug is the kind of story we are all familiar with, at least in theory. We know these characters exist, even if we've never personally encountered them. And if we have encountered them, we probably made sure it was a one time event. They are not the kind of folks with whom one has strong social connections.
You may see them on street corners, panhandling for change. You may see them gathering at homeless shelters or soup kitchens. They are real people. People on a downward spiral, unemployed, probably unemployable, and often with some level of mental illness.
Tracy Letts gives us these destitute, desperate, lonely, and doomed characters, not to preach to us, but simply to make us look at them. It's like watching a train wreck in slow motion. Don't even try to look away. You can't.
Agnes (Jennifer Bass) is living in a flea bag motel room, getting high with her best friend RC (Lisa Young), and trying to evade her abusive ex husband Jerry (Luke Terry), who just got out of the slammer. She has lingering depression from losing her son Lloyd, and she has no plan to change a single thing in her life.
As if that weren't enough challenge for Agnes, she becomes emotionally involved with Peter (Luke Sorge), an AWOL military veteran with some very strange ideas. Neither Agnes nor Peter are looking for a relationship, but both are lonely, desperate people, thrown together in a bottomless swamp of drugs, alcohol, and bizarre conspiracy theories. Stuff happens, and that's not always a good thing.
Without engaging in spoilers, I think it fair to say that this story does not end well.
The Equinox cast is strong and up to the challenge of the deep dive Letts has written for them. Jennifer Bass, in her Denver acting debut, is a sassy, smart, but totally vulnerable Agnes. Her descent into madness is both convincing and scary; Bass makes the implausible believable and the inevitable tragic.
Lisa Young (RC) bounces about, probably the happiest of the sorry lot of characters on the stage. She has an infectious smile and a mischievous manner that make her instantly likable. She is the single beacon of sanity in the script, which explains why Agnes ends up kicking her out of the motel room.
It is, though, Peter (Luke Sorge) who is the center of our attention. Sorge is a compelling, capable actor who makes Bug a powerful theater experience. When we meet Peter in the first act, he is a likable but introverted loner. Sorge is flawless as the shy guy who doesn't want to impose on anyone, and he is extremely scary as he loses his mind before our eyes. One never doubts his tailspin from passably and possibly normal to raving, homicidal lunatic. It is a frightening but amazing transition to watch, as Sorge sinks into a black hole of insanity and takes Agnes with him. This is not a role for just any actor; it requires a full range of emotions and the ability to go off the deep end on cue. Sorge has those qualities in abundance. There were several times during his performance when I heard audible gasps from the audience. Those gasps, in my view, are a striking barometer of audience engagement, and it was obvious that Sorge's performance had connected deeply with everyone in the room.
The backstage crew is always critical, but for Bug, the makeup artist (Jessamyn Geesaman) and the fight choreographer (Luke Allen Terry) are nearly as important as the actors. Geesaman's makeup is bold and gruesome. Terry's fight choreography is spot on. Without giving away much of the story, I will simply recommend that the audience take notice of how realistic the knife fight is in the second act.
Co-directors Deb Flomberg and Patrick Brownson have demanded a great deal from their cast and crew. It is only when we reach down inside ourselves that we learn what we can really accomplish. Flomberg & Brownson demanded excellence. They got it.
For all it's troubling, gruesome subject matter, I think Bug is well worth the considerable commitment it asks of it's audience. This is a trip to the side of town we avoid. We know where it is, and we may even know some of the faces of its citizens. But we drive by, and we look the other way. We don't want to see the reality of the desperate people who live there. Tracy Letts forces us to look.
Whether you consider people like Peter and Agnes to be responsible for their own bad decisions, or whether you consider them to be victims of a broken system, you will have a very difficult time rationalizing the consequences. You may be repulsed by the story, but I guarantee that you will not be able to look away from it. And I guarantee that you will remember this play for a long time.
Disclaimer: the first paragraph of this review is personal; I've had little exposure to the problems of Agnes, RC, and Peter. To the extent my personal experience is due to being white, middle class, and from a semi privileged childhood, my experience is not universal. For that, I am very thankful. Your experience may vary substantially.
There is a public parking lot at the northwest corner of Navajo and 37th Avenue, a very short walk to and from the theater. There are several art galleries in the neighborhood, so if you arrive early, consider browsing. To find the theater, take Federal or Pecos to 38th Avenue, and go east. Turn south on Navajo.
This show closes on September 20, 2014.
This show includes adult language, adult situations, and partial nudity. There is drug use and violence. Leave the kids, including teenagers, at home. Adults should consider the subject matter also; be prepared for a powerful but disturbing evening.
Pre or post show dining suggestion:
We dined with friends before the show at Rodizio's Grill, 1801 Wynkoop Street, Denver, 80202. It's a Brazilian steakhouse with an extensive soups, sides, and salad bar. Gaucho servers bring the meats to your table skewered on a sword, and slice off as much or as little as you like. Meats include Brazilian tri tip, garlic sirloin, and glazed ham and pineapple. It's a tad pricey; the prix fixe full meal is $34.99, plus drinks and dessert.
Rodizio's is about a 15 minute drive to theater in good traffic and weather, so plan accordingly. Parking is sparse. The restaurant is next door to the newly remodeled Union Station. Stop by and check it out if you haven't been there yet.
Photo Credits: Equinox Theatre Company
Directors: Deb Flomberg & Patrick Brownson
Scenic Design/Lighting: Colin Roybal
Sound Design: Deb Flomberg
Fight Choreography: Luke Allen Terry
Makeup/Effects: Jessamyn Geesaman
Costumer: Kristi Siedow-Thompson
Peter: Luke Sorge
Agnes: Jennifer Bass
RC: Lisa Young
Jerry: Luke Terry
Dr. Sweet: Jim Landis