' ' Cinema Romantico: Notes on Steppenwolf’s Production of Bug

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Notes on Steppenwolf’s Production of Bug

As Steppenwolf’s recent production of Tracy Letts’s “Bug” opens, Agnes (Carrie Coon), is standing at the door of her rural, seedy Oklahoma motel room, back to the audience, staring out. And because the door is opened halfway, we can see outside, where the set design team has crafted a sky backdrop that is not painted an ominous black or green or grey that you might expect given the Tornado Alley setting but a pleasing pinkish one, as if at twilight. She gazes for a good several seconds, maybe a few more than that, as if debating whether she would walk out the door and go stand underneath that sky. Then, the phone rings and she shuts herself back inside, pointedly closing herself off to the outside world. Indeed, “Bug” is not a play where the single setting is a matter of narrative convenience but the whole point, the characters consumed by their paranoia and unwavering faith in what their paranoia has led them to believe. That is evoked in Takeshi Kata’s spectacular second act set design in which the motel room becomes a tin foil fortress, the characters sealing themselves inside the buzzing noise of their own delusions, impervious to dissenting voices.

Agnes is holed up, away from her ex-husband (Steve Key), whose abuse eventually surfaces in dialogue even as Coon makes it clear long before in her body language when he turns up unannounced, subtly turning away from him. It’s no wonder, then, that she’s so drawn to Peter (Namir Smallwood), veteran of the Gulf War. If emergent events suggest he has gone AWOL and suffers from mental illness, Smallwood evinces an air at once edgy and polite, getting their crack pipe ready for a few hits with a similar studiousness as later when he’s studying ostensible bugs through a microscope, this odd brand of courtliness making it scarily believable that he could rope her into his dangerous fantasies. This gradual and unwitting seduction is evoked in the beeping of a broken fire alarm that for a brief spell drives them to distraction, giving momentary rise to the incessant noise inside his head. “They’re dangerous,” Peter says of the smoke detector, “more radioactive than plutonium.” “No wonder I feel so lousy”, Agnes replies, Coon’s deadpan not merely eliciting a genuine laugh but coming across like the key that turns the lock.

The back half of “Bug” is a violent, terrifying descent into paranoia as Smallwood lets Peter’s edginess and politeness collapses into righteous indignation, the character claiming his body is infested with bugs stemming from a military-sanctioned experiment, bugs which no one else that enters the room, either Agnes’s ex or the vaguely defined doctor (Randall Arney) trying to track Peter down, can see. Agnes can, or says she can, and Coon’s voice suggest she is just as dubious as she is desperate to believe, until the play’s money moment. Not the end, no, which I won’t give away, but which feels less shocking in a mouth agape, Where Did That Come From? kind of way then from its own twisted sense of logic. “Bug” reaches that end point from an astonishing back and forth in which Peter eggs Agnes on to invent a conspiracy theory pertaining to her own life, the rising insistence of her voice manifesting this transition from skeptic to true believer. Once she finishes, you know it’s all over; they’re gone, in more ways than one.

In a time when everything someone doesn’t care for can be broadly written off as the vile workings of the Deep State, the machinations of the Establishment, the overarching evil of The Government or some nebulous “They”, this remount of Letts’s play feels apt. “If you look at the years since ‘Bug’ premiered,” wrote Catey Sullivan for the Chicago Sun-Times, “monsters that once seemed unthinkable are now not uncommon.” “American discourse has so coarsened, and the nation’s checks and balances have so eroded,” opined Chris Jones for the Chicago Tribune, “that we now are at the point where ‘Bug,’ once a pulpy play, feels like it has become part of our not-so-shared architecture.” Read Letts’s conversation, however, with director David Cromer in the show’s program notes and he traces the genesis back to the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing in his native state and how the Internet broadened access to conspiracy theories, providing a broadband avenue to connecting the dots, even if people weren’t connecting the dots any more than Agnes is when Peter wills her to an “explanation”. “Bug”, then, isn’t so much timely as timeless, suggesting an obsession with conspiracy has always been embedded in our DNA, putting our long festering paranoia under the microscope and letting us see it in full.

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