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Bugging out

Levi Fackrell as Peter


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It’s a boy-meets-girl story for our damaged times: The boy is withdrawn, psychotic, possibly messed-with by the military and, he thinks, under government surveillance; the girl has been traumatized by domestic violence and the kidnapping of her child. Naturally, they fall in love, merge their madnesses and, buffeted by forces beyond their control, hole up in a trashy motel room that might as well be the psychoscape of modern America.

This is the fevered, claustrophobic world of Bug, a drama by Tracy Letts that will be staged by Cockroach Theatre beginning next Friday, Jan. 16, and running through Feb. 1. (Click here for details; tickets are $16 and $20.) Letts wrote Bug in the ’90s, well before the NSA surveillance revelations and torture reports that will surely give the play a ferocious new relevance. We asked co-directors Will Adamson and Aaron Oetting about the context and challenges of staging this play now.

Bug seems tailor-made for the current political climate. Did that influence your selection of this play for your season? Did the zeitgeist demand this play be staged?

AARON: Due to Cockroach’s production schedule, this choice was made long before the torture report and other events came to light. Will and I were first attracted to the rich characters and collision of genres that the plot contains. That being said, as we began digging into the play, the horrific details from the torture report came to light, making the political ramification blatantly apparent.

When you pair the current events of the torture report and the NSA data-mining with Peter’s many references to actual events like the Tuskegee syphilis and LSD testing on soldiers (all things our government has admitted to doing), Peter starts to look less like a crazy person and more like the only rational person in an irrational world.

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The play premiered in the mid-’90s. That was a different cultural context than 2015. Will your staging be significantly different than the original because of that? Did the weird realities of now inform your creative choices?

WILL: This play is frighteningly accurate in the threats it tosses around, specifically when it comes to our current view of certain government agencies, which are likely reading this at this very moment. I can imagine that Tracy Letts had fair justification in the ’90s to be fearful of “the machines ... up and running,” but through today’s lens we are all painfully aware that we’re monitored constantly, and with a shrug of cynicism we simply accept it as the modern age.

AARON: The time when this play was written is not all that different from now. You have a two-term liberal Democrat president, following a Bush presidency that included an Iraq war with a massive domestic terrorist incident (OKC bombing and 9/11). The major difference between now and then is the technological jumps. Today, the comforts of home make it less enticing to go see live events. Live events, especially theater, have to step up and do more than tell a story. It has to give the audience an experience, give them a reason to leave the comforts of home. Our staging is likely a more immersive staging, given the intimacy of our theatre. One that tries to draw you in and let you experience the world rather than merely observe it.

I gather the play’s characters don’t function merely as political symbols. Aside from the political angle, what’s this production of Bug about on the human level?

AARON: You are absolutely right, the political symbolism is quite apparent and we definitely make a few nods to it. But the real heart of this play is a love story; however, this rom-com just happens to also be a cocaine-fueled, blood-splattered, country-western, government-conspiracy thriller. Bug truly crosses genre lines. I feel bad for anyone that has to pick where this play sits on the shelf in a bookstore.

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WILL: Agreed. On a human level this play is about love. Agnes, who lives in a motel, clearly has some daily challenges. She has dealt with loss, her violent ex-husband is fresh out of prison, and the new friend her girlfriend has brought along to ease the sting of loneliness may have also brought with him the unraveling of society. It’s complicated, but when you strip away the threads of these surrounding stories, it’s about two people coming together and getting past incredible obstacles and learning to love one another. 

What's been your biggest challenge in bringing this play to the stage?

WILL: It’s no secret there are two directors on this play for a reason. Aaron and I knew going in it would be necessary for us to divide and conquer. This play is a beast. Massive sound design, by Dog & Pony Studios, takes a big weight off of our chest, but there are still some major challenges: How much blood is too much blood? What substance is safe to actually snort to simulate cocaine? Crack-smoking, for that matter?    

Through all of it, I’d say the biggest challenge is getting to the core of the humanity of these very damaged characters, then layering on the theatrical elements of sound, lights, costumes, special effects, simulated drug use — and all the while keeping the story rooted in honesty. At the end of the day, none of this very complicated dance works if we don’t believe it while we’re experiencing it happening in front of our eyes.   

AARON: The biggest challenge has been the sheer intensity embedded within each scene of the script. The play never really lets up, each scene goes further and further down the rabbit hole, with each turn never going where you expected it to. In every scene you are dealing with a litany of issues. Drug addiction, domestic abuse, PTSD, true love, hidden conspiracies, friendship, massive physical pain, alcoholism, mourning the loss of loved ones, and bugs (lots of bugs) are just some of the issues that litter every scene.

Scott Dickensheets is a Las Vegas writer and editor whose trenchant observations about local culture have graced the pages of publications nationwide.