Bitten by 'Bug'

by Tom Lee

Tracy Letts's play Bug, which premiered in London in 1996 and was staged in New York off-Broadway eight years later, has variously been called science fiction, a comedy, a love story, a thriller and a study in paranoia. (The 2006 movie adaptation, directed by William Friedkin and starring Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon, was unwisely marketed as a horror film and promptly flopped at the box office.) It tells the story of loner Agnes, a cocktail waitress living in a seedy motel room who is introduced to and eventually becomes involved with Peter, a Gulf War veteran who draws Agnes into his increasingly disturbing and violent delusions about government and conspiracy theories. Bug is the opening production of the current Harvard-Radcliffe Summer Theatre season, and Harvard Arts Beat asked director Sarah Batista-Pereira '13, executive producer Aaron Graham-Horowitz '15 and set designer Matthew Warner '13 to comment on the play's themes and challenges—as well as how best to handle dramatic material that may be upsetting for some audiences.

Bug is not the first play that comes to mind when you think about summer theater, which usually connotes light, escapist entertainment. Why was it chosen for the HRST season?

Sarah Batista-Pereira: I can't speak for the producers, though I am forever grateful that they selected it, but I chose Bug precisely because of the summer's tendency toward the escapist. Bug is a show, essentially, about escapism—and the dangers that go with it. Agnes and Peter aren't movie fans but they're both hiding from reality in every way they can, and the problems of that is a message I've found more and more interesting over the years.

Aaron Graham-Horowitz: I'll admit we took a risk in selecting Bug, but I believe that risk has paid off for everyone involved in HRST. This season brought in talented staff applicants and auditioners in record numbers, in part because Bug is a play that many students feel strongly about. Bug is a unique and challenging piece, but one that our team was ready and eager to handle, and their enthusiasm has made the play into a real highlight of the season.

Tracy Letts has said that the play is about "the unhealthy manifestation of healthy paranoia about powerful institutions." What do you think he means by that?

Sarah Batista-Pereira: Ray Bradbury, may he rest in peace, wrote in Fahrenheit 451 that we needed to "be bothered." Peter and Agnes do take it to tragic ends, but they are in simplest terms "bothered." Bothered by a violent, often illogical world. One of the most horrifying things about Bug is how many facts are in Peter's rantings, some we didn't even know until researching the show over the rehearsal process. While other themes sparked more for me, just the idea of all that going on without our knowledge was chilling, and I think provides a solid backbone even at the show's craziest.

Bug has some very intense scenes of sexuality and especially violence. How important is it to make these aspects of the play seem "real"? Do you think contemporary audiences are capable of truly being shocked, given their exposure to so much shocking content in movies, on television and the Internet?

Matthew Warner: I think that assumption that today's audiences can't be shocked misses the point for a lot of theater. When someone gets stabbed on stage, or has sex, or even just walks around naked, the goal isn't necessarily to "shock" per se. You aren't really trying to surprise your audience, so much as to expand the degree of possibility for the show. The worst thing that can happen in a sex farce, say, is that the audience gets the impression that nobody can be naked. So someone takes off their pants, and you prove that the world you're creating is one where sex—or violence or whatever—can actually happen. Or, going the other way, you use a heightening of sexuality or violence to remind your audience of the irreality of the scene. When someone walks out on stage, stark naked, everyone in the audience knows they're in a theater. Real life doesn't involve seeing other people's junk, so when it happens in a play like Angels in America, say—which has a scene on the beach where a character just strips off all his clothes and stands there—everyone kind of "snaps out of it," which can be a really powerful effect. It goes both ways—sometimes you're building realism, sometimes you're taking it apart.

What have been the most challenging aspects of staging the play—for the director, the actors and the design team?

Matthew Warner: Very early on, Sarah and I decided that we weren't going to approach the set very conceptually. Basically, the show happens in a disgusting hotel room, and that's what we decided to do. And, especially on a student budget, that's hard. You need three walls, a bunch of furniture, and some pretty specific aesthetics. If you decide the play happens in an abstract space that evokes a garbage dump, that's relatively easy, since nobody knows what it looks like. But realism is harder—lots of people have seen motel rooms, and they're going to notice if you get something wrong. As a result, getting the rough space planned out was super simple—we knew where the walls were going from day one, basically. But we've been tweaking the details ever since.

Sarah Batista-Pereira: Time constraints! Short as Bug is, it is also beautifully complex, and it took every ounce of energy and concentration for everyone to get it together in time. Luckily, we have one of the finest staffs and casts around.

What do you hope audiences will take away from the experience of seeing Bug?

Sarah Batista-Pereira: Live in the real world. Question it—oh, always question it. But don't forget it is there and it is real.

Performances of the HRST production of Bug continue Thursday-Saturday, July 5-7, 7:30 pm at the Loeb Drama Center Experimental Theater, 64 Brattle St., Cambridge. Tickets are $12 general admission, $8 for students with valid ID, available through the Harvard Box Office or by calling 617.496.2222.