Insect asides 

Skin-crawling play leaves audience bugged

Paranoia provides an underrated source of comfort. If the military-industrial complex manipulates your every move with bar codes, chip implants and black helicopters, how can you be blamed for your problems?

Like a carnival dunking booth, Actor's Express' Bug drops the audience into a vat of full-blown dementia. Playwright Tracy Letts crafts a sideshow of violence, drug abuse, nudity and deranged behavior, but with bigger ambitions than the pitch-black comedy of Killer Joe, his previous hit at Actor's Express. Despite literally skin-crawling insect imagery, Bug emerges as a psychological case study of unnerving insight. The characters might be poor, cokehead losers, but their descent into madness takes on tragic, even apocalyptic qualities.

Out-of-town actress Sherman Fracher plays Agnes, the permanent resident of a seedy Oklahoma motel room, who finds herself torn between two lovers. Her hulking, sadistic ex-husband, Goss (Jeff Feldman), gets out of jail and wants to keep using her as a punching bag. In contrast, mild-mannered Peter (Daniel May) seems like a good-hearted gentleman, despite being a homeless, freebasing weirdo. May does some of his best work in Bug, delivering his first line, "I'm not an axe murderer," with hilarious, matter-of-fact calm.

But the more Agnes falls for Peter, the more Goss seems like the lesser of two evils. Agnes' alarm bells should go off after the first time they have sex and Peter grows obsessed with finding a biting aphid in their bed. It's a cliché that stage nudity can be "important to the story," but Bug's extensive nude scene proves compelling -- and not just for the obvious reason. Peter and Agnes' nakedness initially conveys their post-coital intimacy. Yet as Peter pores over the sheets and mattresses, searching for vermin that might not exist, he all but dismantles their romantic refuge. Plus, their flesh may prove attractive to six-legged watchers, as well.

Act Two opens on Agnes' room littered with every name-brand bug killer imaginable, no-pest strips dangling from the ceiling, in an outward sign of Peter's spiraling delusions about unnatural infestation. Simply watching the pair grapple with their bug obsession makes for freaky yet engrossing theater, directed with finely tuned suspense and a deliberate pace by Jasson Minadakis. With vivid dialogue about insect swarms and actors constantly scratching at ugly rashes, Bug gives you such a case of the creepie-crawlies, you may want a flea dip afterward.

The play contains potent metaphorical power as well, and not just as a grim parody of drug addiction. A "bug" can also be an eavesdropping device or computer glitch, which fit right in with Peter's Orwellian worldview. The ever-expanding conspiracy theories of the tin-foil hat crowd can provide surreal humor, such as Peter's rant that ranges from the Guyana massacre to Tim McVeigh. His crazed distrust nevertheless has a germ of truth. In an era unmatched for monitoring technology and potential abuses of homeland security, a little suspicion appears utterly reasonable.

At best, Peter seems to be off his meds, yet Agnes takes his side -- and his hallucinations. The action builds to a textbook case of a folie à deux, literally "a madness shared by two," in which one person grows to share the delusions of another. As Fracher's sensitive performance goes from melancholic to manic, she finds a sad consistency in Agnes' history of drugs, abusive relationships and mental quirks. She's a lost soul, and Peter's fantasies, however bloody and self-destructive, provide the only escape outlet she can perceive.

In Bug, Agnes' unhappy little room -- never a safe haven to begin with -- becomes a kind of roach motel of the mind. Sanity checks in, but it doesn't check out.

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