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 V.16 No.37 | September 13 - 19, 2007 

Performance Review

Paranoia (The Destroyer)

Bug at the Vortex Theatre

From left to right: Miguel Martinez, Justin Lenderking, Emily Carvey, Rosa Robinson and Gene Grant star in the Vortex Theatre’s new production of   Bug  .
From left to right: Miguel Martinez, Justin Lenderking, Emily Carvey, Rosa Robinson and Gene Grant star in the Vortex Theatre’s new production of Bug .

Let me start with a hilarious understatement: This play is not suitable for children. And when I say “not suitable” I mean you'd have to be completely deranged to bring anyone under the age of 16 to see this thing. The two leads spend half their stage time smoking crack. They spend the other half buck-naked covered in nasty self-inflicted wounds. The final scene explodes in a mushroom cloud of paranoia and nihilism.

This play is violent. It's gross. It's twisted.

That said, though, I really enjoyed it. Several years ago, the Vortex staged Killer Joe, an equally sick play by Tracy Letts. If you remember that one, you'll have some idea what you're in for this time around.

The story opens in a seedy motel room in Oklahoma occupied by a waitress named Agnes (Emily Carvey) who's traumatized by the disappearance of her son and the reappearance of her abusive ex-husband Goss (Miguel Martinez). Agnes and her lesbian friend R.C. (Rosa Robinson) commiserate while taking turns sucking on a crack pipe. Meanwhile, Peter (Justin Lenderking), R.C.'s mysterious acquaintance, hovers nearby. When R.C. leaves to go to a party, Peter spends the night on the floor.

This is sort of what the play looks like, except the characters are naked and smoke crack.
This is sort of what the play looks like, except the characters are naked and smoke crack.

Peter is an odd dude, but Agnes falls for him anyway. The rest of the story largely revolves around the truly screwed-up relationship that evolves between the two. It turns out Peter is a Gulf War vet who believes he's the victim of secret military experiments. He somehow escaped from his military tormenters and is now living on the run. Peter's discovery of a single bedbug (real or imagined) in the motel room cascades into an epic paranoid fantasy that threatens to annihilate these weary lovers. Think William S. Burroughs meets Apocalypse Now. (Actually, the Burroughs comparison is surprisingly apt, because the show, despite all the gore, is also extremely funny.)

Letts has crafted a sharp script, and director Aaron Worley has done a fine job of organizing the chaos into an alluring, can't-tear-your-eyes-away spectacle. The cast, likewise, is solid where it matters most. Martinez has always had a knack for playing a charismatic sleaze, and he's aided here by a truly impressive ’stache. Lenderking is such a good raging anti-social weirdo that I'd feel deeply uncomfortable if I ever met him in real life. It's Carvey, though, who really holds this thing together with a performance that's earthy and real in the first half and progressively more unhinged after the intermission.

Earlier this year, Letts' script was transformed into a movie starring Ashley Judd, Michael Shannon and Harry Connick, Jr. I haven't seen it, and don't intend to, but most people didn't seem to like it very much.

I can say it's hard to imagine this script on the screen, partly because all the action is cramped into that creepy motel room, partly because the story has the kind of intimate psychological intensity that works better up close in a theater. Up till the very end, you find yourself wondering if Peter is right, if—to paraphrase Burroughs—paranoia is simply knowing all the facts. Could be. All I know is the morning after I saw the play, I woke up with a mysterious welt on my knee. It does make you wonder.

Bug , a play by Tracy Letts directed by Aaron Worley, runs through Sept. 30 at the Vortex Theatre (2004½ Central SE). Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. Sundays at 6 p.m. $12. A post-show discussion with cast and crew will occur after the show on Sunday, Sept. 16. 247-8600,


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