The Hunger Artists' Creepy-Crawly 'Bug' Makes the Surreal All Too Real

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A red herring is any plot element introduced into a story designed to deliberately mislead an audience into believing some plot element is critically important when it really isn’t. They pop up in all kinds of fictional narratives, from Citizen Kane’s Rosebud and Lost’s three-toed statues to the Bush administration’s yarn about Saddam Hussein owning WMDs.

Tracy Letts’ intriguingly fucked-up play, Bug, has its own red herring. Maybe. It’s the cocaine snorted and smoked by the unfortunate souls who live in, or stop by, the seedy Oklahoma motel room where the play takes place. Apparently this seedy dive is owned by someone tight with a Columbian drug cartel, because this blow is a lot more potent than the diluted, stepped-on junk being hawked somewhere in your community at this very moment.

Do enough of it, and it produces an intense, debilitating psychosis that manifests in paranoia, hallucinations and absurd delusions—not the least insane of which is the decision to keep living in seedy motel rooms in Oklahoma.

But the genius of Letts’ play is that it’s entirely plausible that the drugs have nothing to do with the whacked-out behavior and far-fetched delusions of its characters. After all, you’re not paranoid if someone really is watching you. You’re not hallucinating if millions of tiny bugs truly are crawling beneath your skin. And you’re not delusional if you really are at the center of a global conspiracy designed to keep the world run by a small cabal of international power brokers.

That is, like, some really strong shit.

But whether Bug is closer to Cops than The X-Files, the very fact that Letts’ play even raises the possibility that his characters might actually be more pawns than sociopaths, is remarkable. What begins as a kind of 1970s Sam Shepard character study of salt-of-the-earth folk dealing with busted dreams, self-destructive relationships and the wreckage of their pasts somehow manages to switch into Philip K. Dick territory, becoming a far more chilling story of government experiments on citizens and technology run amok.

Letts’ story is so creepy and absorbing that it manages to work in spite of a slip-shod production.

Maybe it had something to do with the fact that the actors outnumbered the people in the audience in the performance I saw last Sunday, but things felt sluggish and under-rehearsed. John Byrd does an excellent job as the play’s pivotal character, Peter, a weird kind of disassociated madman who might actually be the only sane person in the universe. But most every other element could use some fine-tuning, most notably the lagging pace, general lack of tension, and woefully lame production values. And director Ted Leib really needs to figure out what to do during the last scene change. Asking an audience to sit in the dark for three minutes as stage-hands and actors line the back wall of the set with aluminum foil doesn’t just sap the energy from the play’s climactic scene, it’s also just plain rude.

The least Leib could have done was kick down some of that crazy blow.

 

Bug at the Hunger Artists Theatre, 699-A S. State College Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 680-6803; www.hungerartists.com. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; also Thurs., Oct. 30, 8 p.m. Through Nov. 2. $15-$18.

 
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