Itchy and Scratchy

Months of therapy are all it will take to come to grips with Tracy Letts' dark and funny Bug, onstage now in its area premiere at Kitchen Dog Theater. It's that disturbing, that real. And as a piece of live theater, that much of a visceral shock to the system.

Bug must be seen. But brrrr, it is one gnarly beast.

The two-act play asks its cast and its audience to tumble into some terrifying places. For the two main actors--Diane Worman, as lonely waitress Agnes White, and Ian Leson, as mysterious drifter Peter Evans--that means doffing every stitch of clothing in one scene and engaging in startling acts of violence in others. There are long nonverbal stretches in the play and rambling soliloquies that touch on, among other things, missing children, the war in Iraq, UFOs, Tim McVeigh, the Tuskegee experiments, the army's immunization of soldiers in the Middle East, the Bilderberg group, the Jim Jones cult suicides and Ted Kaczynski. Welcome to a world informed by Art Bell's overnight radio show and The Weekly World News.

Bug is definitely weird, but it's not just about weirdness. The characters are dirty-legged down-and-outers living on the edge of oblivion--in this case, rural Oklahoma. But what happens to them tickles at basic fears in all of us. Like the fear of creepy-crawly things in our beds. Or sharing that bed with a handsome one-night stand who turns out to be...brrrr.

Lonely 40-year-old Agnes meets shy, handsome Peter via her biker-dyke friend R.C. (the phenomenal Christine Vela). They hole up in Agnes' dreary motel room, freebasing coke. Agnes dreads the imminent return of ex-con ex-husband Jerry (Wm. Paul Williams), a beefy former sausage truck driver who'd like to make contact with Agnes again, fist-first. She yearns to connect with Peter, who's as jumpy as a grasshopper but whose use of "matriarchal" and "pejorative" in conversation makes him Einstein compared to the primordial ooze Agnes was married to.

Peter spends the night. After sex, he wakes to the chirp of a cricket. He freaks out, tearing the room apart. He blurts to Agnes that he is infested with millions of tiny insects implanted by the government because he knows too much about secret military installations. By mating with him, she's now infested, too.

Agnes is wary at first (that dumb, she's not), but enmeshed in the web of their desperate love connection, and under the influence of copious amounts of substances (believably conveyed by the actors), she joins Peter in a state of paranoia so contagious we start to feel their itches. When Agnes finally sees the bugs Peter insists are all around--gulp, so do we.

The rest of Bug's secrets are better discovered by buying a ticket. To reveal anything more would lessen this play's powerful wallop.

Tracy Letts wrote the equally lurid and fascinating Killer Joe, staged at the MAC two years ago. Few other playwrights can so skillfully get laughs one minute and gasps of horror the next. Bug incorporates cinematic silence and eerie sound effects. When we jump at Agnes' ringing phone, or stare intently at the closed bathroom door wondering who's behind it, that's the playwright forcing us to zoom in like a camera grabbing a close-up.

Directed by Jonathan Taylor, this production of Bug owes a lot to the complex, carefully calibrated performances of Worman and Leson. Every inch of her brittle body speaks of Agnes' miserable life. The arc that Leson takes with his character--from near-catatonic stillness in the beginning to an explosive mania at the end--shows an actor in top form. Leson's done good work in area theaters, including a fine job as a yuppie husband in WaterTower's Living Out recently, but he's never been this interesting. Or this scary-thin. Both actors look like they've starved themselves to near-emaciation to play coke fiends.

Vela makes a strong impression as R.C. Williams brings to Jerry everything he needs to play an abusive hulk. There's another character, too (well played by Mark Oristano), but best to let him sneak up on you.

Unnerving and thrilling, Bug will plague your dreams.

The area's theater critics convene at an annual luncheon to ingest carbs and to carp for several hours about which plays, players, directors, designers and writers memorably entertained us. This year's D-FW Critics' Forum nods were decided by yours truly, Arnold Wayne Jones of The Dallas Voice, Martha Heimberg of Dallas Weekly, Nancy Churnin and Lawson Taitte of The Dallas Morning News and Mark Lowry and Perry Stewart of The Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

The awards honor noteworthy work by 15 different theater companies. Several winners, including director Rene Moreno, actress Elise Reynard and actors Chamblee Ferguson, Gary Floyd, Terry Vandivort and Steven Walters, are recognized for strong contributions to multiple productions from August 2004 to August 2005.

Outstanding Direction: Dan Day, Buried Child (Kitchen Dog Theater); Rene Moreno, Blind Date (WingSpan Theatre Co.), Living Out (WaterTower Theatre) and The Wrestling Season (Dallas Children's Theater); Katherine Owens, Blasted (Undermain Theatre); Susan Sargeant, A Moon for the Misbegotten (Circle Theatre); T.J. Walsh, Metamorphoses (Theatre Three); Stan Wojewodski Jr., The Importance of Being Earnest (Dallas Theater Center).

Outstanding Performances by Actors: James Brennan, My Fair Lady (Dallas Theater Center); Cameron Cobb, A Number (Undermain Theatre); Gary Floyd, King David (Lyric Stage) and Merrily We Roll Along (Theatre Three); Chamblee Ferguson, The Hypochondriac (Classical Acting Company), A Man of No Importance (Uptown Players) and A Moon for the Misbegotten (Circle Theatre); Terry Vandivort, Dear Liar (Theatre Three) and Southern Baptist Sissies (Uptown Players); Steven Walters, The Gift of the Magi (Classical Acting Company) and King Ubu (Second Thought Theatre).

Outstanding Performances by Actresses: Carrie Bourn, Molly Sweeney (Act 1 Productions); Gigi Cervantes, Living Out (WaterTower Theatre); Marisa Diotalevi, Parallel Lives (Contemporary Theatre of Dallas); Heather Henry, A Moon for the Misbegotten (Circle Theatre); Elise Reynard, Blind Date (WingSpan Theatre Co.), Gift of the Magi (Classical Acting Company) and Mambo Italiano (Uptown Players); Julie White, Bad Dates (Dallas Theater Center).

Outstanding Performances by Ensemble Casts: The Last One-Nighter on the Death Trail (Our Endeavors Theatre Collective); Ragtime (Lyric Stage); The Wild Party (Uptown Players); The Wrestling Season (Dallas Children's Theater).

Outstanding Design or Creative Contributions: Blasted, for Bryan Wofford's special effects (Undermain Theatre); Buried Child, for Bryan Wofford's sets, Laura McMeley's lighting, Patrick Johnson's costumes, Jake Maudlin's sound and Judy Niven's props (Kitchen Dog Theater); The Importance of Being Earnest, for John Coyne's scenic design (Dallas Theater Center); King Ubu, for Kelly Russell's prop design (Second Thought Theatre); The Last One-Nighter on the Death Trail, for John Hobbie's scenic design (Our Endeavors Theatre Collective); Metamorphoses, for Tristan Decker's lighting design (Theatre Three); The Wrestling Season, for Sara Romersberger's movement choreography and Marco E. Salinas' sound design (Dallas Children's Theater).

Outstanding New Plays and Musicals: The Gift of the Magi, adapted by Lee Trull; Hazard County, by Allison Moore (Kitchen Dog Theater); The Last One-Nighter on the Death Trail, book by Christine Vela and David Goodwin, songs by the ensemble (Our Endeavors Theatre Collective); The Living End, a series of short musicals by Jeff Blumenkrantz, Libby Saines, Annie Kessler, Andy Monroe, Brad Alexander and Helen Chayefsky (Lyric Stage); Peacock (solo), by Ashley Smith (WaterTower Theatre).

Special Citation: To the Dallas theater community, for honoring tickets of Plano Repertory Theatre's season ticket-holders following the company's sudden closing this summer.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner