I wanted to see this production primarilly because of the Letts’ fever that seems to be apparent in theatres across the world. As a part of the playwrighting zietgeist, Tracy Letts is a familiar name… and will continue to be in the coming months as Steppenwolf’s production of August: Osage County is brought into town by the STC… (not to be confused with the production by the Melbourne Theatre Company last year)… Pulitzers will do that to you, I suppose. (And don’t bother to ask Kristina Keneally about Pulitzers- she’s still trying to work out if plays are literature.) Anyway, in a country that isn’t Australia, which is The United States of America, Tracy Letts has written plays, been awarded money and prizes for them, and now is enjoying stage time at The Griffin Theatre “the home of New Australian writing.”

Like last year, Griffin Theatre Company programmed as a part of their Independent season an early play by Martin Crimp- around the same time the STC was also showing a Martin Crimp. This year it is a Tracy Letts fest, – so I decided to catch the show. It’s an interesting strategy of Griffin’s to have the independent wing introduce a writer to the general public- the earlier work of a writer, in an independent season- before they fork out the serious dollars for the STC production of the new work by the writer. A part of me finds it useful for people to see the growth of a writer- a part of me finds it irritating that there isn’t more diversity, especially when so many living Aussie Writers hunger for the space that the Griffin used to provide them with.

Regardless of all this I decided to attend- though late in the season- as I noticed that none of my aus stage writer colleagues had snaffled it. I had enjoyed Skuse’s work last year- both for TRS (Old Fitz) Ghost Stories (from the same producer Katy Alexander) and References to Salvadore Dali Make me Hot (Griffin Independent). It seems he is a director who has a reputation for actor/producers seeking him out to work with them (Circle in the Square I think have aswell- if I am correct?)- and I can see why. He seems to be able to navigate difficult stories and find great performances. In “Bug” I saw the brilliance of Jeanette Cronin – I saw her bravery- her ugly fragility- her compassion. This is not the Jeanette Cronin I have experienced on stage previously- something always felt a little lofty- and in Bug, she is earth and grit and sweat and rawness.

I have included in this version of the review a paragraph I chose to leave out of my australian stage review- mainly because of the tone change.

My reaction was though- I was not frightened or creeped out by Bug- I wasn’t psychologically scared or physically- but I was existentially scared. I felt sad for Americans. I felt sad for all of those who are desperate to feel connected to each other. I wondered if theatre goers wanted to see this descent into the world of drug-enduced psychosis- and for those of us who have seen friends or loved ones plummet into that void- what does it mean to us to see it on stage- and what does it mean to feel the horror of it in reality? What is this sketch of modern consciousness- what does it mean to society at large- once we have seen and understood this play, it’s ideas and problems- what are we to do then? Where are we? What can we do?

Letts, a native of Oklahoma, may have grown up with the chirrupy syrupy musical ending with the exclamation mark (OKLAHOMA!) but since then there was the Timothy McVeigh bombing that showed a different side to the American Mid South. There is a darkness- but it’s not the darkness of politics though the army is implicated. Bug is much more clever than that- its personal darkness- it’s wider, more universal darkness- the darkness that comes from loss, fear, anger, damage.

Perhaps this is a cautionary tale – the ad for NSW Health on the back of the programme is confirmation it seems- but what is it cautioning me against?

First published on www.australianstage.com.au

A bed in a hotel room- a watery floral pattern- inoffensive and unremarkable. Cheap polyester carpet- like that in state primary schools- carpet that behaves more like linoleum than plush carpet. The usual indicators of a usual hotel room- a chair, a bible resting inside the bedside table draws, two bedside lamps. Not much else. It feels inoffensive, as temporary things should. Transient. Characterless. A tabula rasa for its myriad of potential visitors. Except there aren’t many visitors to this hotel room- except if you count the bugs.

Agnes White (Jeanette Cronin) is drunk- drinking, smoking, struggles as she flicks off her sand shoes, wriggles out of her work clothes into clothes that could be worn by a much younger, more naive woman: a woman who has not lost a child. Punctuated by phone calls with a silent caller- possibly her incarcerated husband Jerry Goss (Jonny Pasvolsky), Agnes spends her time avoiding reality, swinging between substances: cigarettes, coffee, coke, cocaine- placidly moving through time. When a young stranger, Peter Evans (Matthew Walker) arrives – brought over by her friend RC (Catherine Terracini), all this changes. Peter, recently released from the American armed forces and without anywhere else to stay, is afforded the floral bedspread and space on the hard carpet floor. Before too long, dark, difficult secrets leak out of them both, and their stories becomes entangled in memories, conspiracy theories, paranoias and loneliness- as their world implodes- as a nest of bugs fester and itch under their skin, crawl through their pizza and overwhelm every waking minute.

Sydney audience’s are no stranger to Tracy Letts’s writing, having experienced Killer Joe directed by Iain Sinclair in Belvoir’s BSharp season in 2008- and soon, Sydney Theatre Company will be hosting Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s Tony Award winning production of August: Osage County.

The play is largely an Kafka-esque story of metamorphosis- but in this contemporary telling, we are not witnessing the lonely, singular occurrence of an individual tortured by his own existence- but a couple, who’s desperate need to connect and find comfort in that connect, find middle ground in tearing themselves apart. I don’t necessarily agree with the programme notes that Bug is “an exploration of An America gone bad – a place where you’d better look after yourself because no one else will.” I think Bug is about the chronic and debilitating loneliness that drives people to self destruct- mentally, personally, ideologically, spiritually, physically. Largely also a cautionary tale about drug use and the fragility of one’s mind and perception- Bug is about a desperate need to connect with reality (and with others). It is about our need to recover from our own personal traumas and the lengths we will go to satisfy those yearning and that need.

Rita Carmody’s set and design are clever and well utilized as a grey/beige wishy washy island. Inconjunction with the design, I particularly enjoyed Anthony Skuse’s handling of the set re-setting, violence (choreographed by Scott Witt), and the blocking of the actors, more so, than in any other production using such theatrical devises. The set is revolved and manipulated by the actors- just as they manipulate each other and orchestrate their own demise. Complimented by (at times) beautiful soft naturalistic light by Matt Cox, this is a well designed, well produced show- thoughtfully put together by Katy Alexander.

The performances are focussed, at times surprisingly robust and tender. Bug is an excellent introduction to Letts’ writing, and those who have had a chance to see this production, will be sure to find August: Osage County a richer experience for it.