Pediculophobia is the fear of infestation, and it can drive a person mad – even insane. Theatre Exile’s production of the psychological thriller Bug, written by Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Letts, explores not only the fear of bugs, but the phobias of life, solitude and desperation.
On April 25, Theatre Exile will premiere its production of Bug at the Christ Church Neighborhood House, located at 20 N. American St. in Old City. Directed by Matt Pfeiffer, the Bug cast includes Grace Gonglewski, Matt Saunders and Joe Canuso.
Bug, which premiered in London in September 1996, follows a 40-year-old, down-and-out waitress, Agnes, and her friend, R.C., and is set in a seedy motel room in Oklahoma City. The two women are on the run – as you’d expect in a thriller – and hiding from Agnes’ ex-con ex-husband Jerry Gross. The two soon meet Peter, a mysterious man who brings more into the story and the motel room than just his baggage.
The audience is taken for a scary, itchy and hair-raising ride as the two main characters begin to crumble toward insanity, convinced that the motel room is infested with insects. Mind you, this is a play that comes with a warning – full nudity, violent scenes – and lets the audience in on the slow degradation of its dysfunctional characters.
“It can be difficult for theater to really tap into the nightmare of modern living,” Brenna Geffers, Exile’s artistic assistant and a Temple alumna, said. “But Bug finds a way to help us explore our deepest fears and insecurities.”
After some lukewarm reviews in London, Letts brought Bug to the states, where audiences have been more receptive to the white-trash seediness of the characters and the story’s message.
After its U.S. debut in Ithaca, N.Y., Bug moved to the Wooly Mammoth Theater in Washington, D.C., and later to Chicago’s Red Orchid Theater in 2004. Bug opened off-Broadway at New York’s Barrow Street Theater in February 2004.
The New York cast included Shannon Cochran as Agnes and Michael Shannon as Peter, under the direction of Dexter Bullard. The 2004 production won five Lucille Lortel Awards, the highest honor for off-Broadway shows, for outstanding play, direction, lighting design and sound design. Cochran and Bullard were also nominated for the prestigious Drama Desk Awards.
The New York critics were kinder to Letts, embracing Bug for its raw intensity.
“Buckle up and brace yourself for the theater season’s wildest ride,” said Ben Brantley, theater critic for the New York Times.
He called the play “obscenely exciting” and “contagious.”
The play also spawned a film in 2006, starring Ashley Judd and directed by William Friedkin, which premiered at the legendary Cannes Film Festival and debuted at No. 3 in America.
Prior to Bug, Letts received national attention for his off-Broadway play Killer Joe, which opened at the SoHo Playhouse in 1998, and was produced by Theatre Exile in 2006. Letts borrows similar themes and motifs from Killer Joe – sexual abuse, drugs and desperation – in Bug.
Letts, 42, has since written a number of plays and dabbled in acting, starring in the recent Chicago production of The Pillowman. He won a Pulitzer Prize in drama for August: Osage County, which is currently playing to rave reviews at Broadway’s Imperial Theater.
“His writing is modern and very down to earth,” said Bryan Clark, managing director of Theatre Exile. “He speaks to the public about drug use, violence and abuse, but his characters are likeable in their un-likeability.”
Theatre Exile’s production promises to be just as shocking and thrilling as its previous performances. The Old City-based company, now in its 11th season, has made a name for itself by producing cutting-edge material that other established theaters find risky.
Geffers said Theatre Exile also tries to embrace and cultivate the best talent, whether established or not.
“Exile has for the last few years proven to produce amazing, passionate, gritty shows with Philadelphia’s best actors,” she said. “We push the boundaries of theatricality each season, and showcase all Philadelphia designers, directors and actors.”
In fact, the theater company announced its 11th season by calling it an exploration of “the darker side of the subconscious mind.” The season opened with Mr. Marmalade by Noah Haidle, a dark comedy that examines domestic abuse and parental neglect, followed by Roosters, the Milcha Sanchez-Scott drama about a father’s return to his family after serving jail time for manslaughter.
Bug director Matt Pfeiffer, a Barrymore Award double nominee for outstanding leading actor and outstanding direction of a play in 2007, said he wants to compel audiences to get involved with the production’s actors.
“It’s a wild ride, with more than just shock value,” he said. “It has a certain immediacy. It’s not for everyone, but if you want a thrill, you will get one at Bug.”
Max McCormack can be reached at email@example.com.
In the know:
April 25 – May 18
Christ Church Neighborhood House
$15 – $40