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Out Front on Main's staging of Bug, Tracy Letts' tale of paranoia and dissolution, is uneven but worthwhile

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The Tracy Letts era in Middle Tennessee was launched last weekend with the regional premiere of Bug at Out Front on Main in Murfreesboro. While many theatergoers await Tennessee Repertory Theatre's highly anticipated opening of the playwright's Superior Donuts in March, George Manus Jr.'s storefront enterprise hosts the area's first official onstage look at a Letts work (not including play readings).

 Bug is an oddity dating from 1996, early in the author's career. Stylistically, it's something of a cross between Sam Shepard and Lanford Wilson, with dissolute characters trapped in a seedy paranoid fantasy while helicopters hover ominously overhead.

The bugs here are presumably symbolic — they're the pink elephants that might plague any poor devil victimized by U.S. Army experiments. That's ex-soldier Peter's story, as he tells it. He's a Desert Storm vet, but now he's taken refuge in the Oklahoma motel room of down-and-out Agnes, who subsists on vodka and cocaine. Among her other problems is her creepy and abusive ex-con boyfriend Goss, who has a tendency to arrive on her doorstep unannounced. Her lesbian friend R.C. also shows up occasionally to use the phone, and in the end a certain Dr. Sweet puts in an appearance. (Apparently the latter is a main player in the governmental lab-rat backstory and a person not to be trusted.)

The dialogue is coarse, but not the bluest you'll come across. The drug taking is well simulated but never extreme or overly gross. There is a fair amount of nudity, mostly involving leading lady Molly Breen. According to director Manus, the script is specific about the nudity's use, and it certainly adds to the naturalistic feel — that's what people look like when they're hanging out in motel rooms and don't care what they're wearing. The tawdriness of the whole situation is reinforced by Breen's performance, and she exploits a certain noirish femme fatale languor to courageous effect.

Andy Woloszyn is Peter. While he provides a capable performance, the role might have been better cast, since his slight build doesn't exactly conjure images of the rugged ex-GI type. On the other hand, Mic Rex, as the loser Goss, presents some needed physical heft, and proves successful in creating an unsettling atmosphere within an already claustrophobic one.

Manus' direction is pretty laissez-faire, though, and despite all the earthiness before us, there are missed opportunities for more dramatic interaction. And while the chaotic, random-looking set can be excused as functional to the story — it's a fleabag, after all — the poor lighting cannot, and that's a significant shortcoming.

Interestingly, Manus has double-cast his show for its forthcoming second weekend, and curious onlookers will experience a cast headed up by Jessica Theiss. For the play's third and final weekend, Manus plans to mix and match the players. (You can't say the Murfreesboro producer-director isn't trying to stir the artistic pot in his little piece of the world.)

The above flaws notwithstanding, Out Front's staging of Bug is still somewhat compelling — for its daring, and for the opportunity it provides to see some of Letts' work. If you are easily offended, or are looking for a slick theatrical production, it may not be for you. But if you prefer drama with gritty realism and dramatic tension, Bug is worth the sting.


Nothing wonky about this Wonka

Circle Players' fall production of Roald Dahl's Willy Wonka is certainly a community-centric celebration of talent. Directors Jamie London and Shawn Knight have gathered a mix of veteran adults and young kids, and on balance the results are favorable. The real coup was casting Elliott Robinson in the title role. His commanding presence, affability and pleasant singing voice serve to anchor the sincere performances of the 28 cast members.

The show's staging may be low-tech, but it's creatively conceived and executed, as the Wonka factory comes alive in unexpected ways. This is no mean feat given the possible audience expectations for a well-known story that's been successfully told twice in Hollywood. Nashville Children's Theatre produced a different script based on the same source material in 2008, and that mounting achieved a fair amount of technical sophistication. Here, the special effects have a DIY charm — and a welcome cleverness.

The script recycles the basics of the 1971 Gene Wilder film version, fleshed out by many more songs interpolated by composer Leslie Bricusse, who along with Tim McDonald is responsible for this adaptation. The spirit of co-composer Anthony Newley, who passed away in 1999, remains in familiar numbers such as "Pure Imagination," "The Candy Man" and "Golden Ticket." 

Jack Williams makes for an endearing Charlie Bucket, and David Shaw does well as his supportive and lovably goofy Grandpa Joe. Other standouts include Savannah Lynch as a reporter, plus all the young, mostly female ensemble members, who play many roles, most notably that of Oompa-Loompas sporting fluorescent lime-green wigs. Cat Arnold plays Charlie's mother, and is also the show's production designer, clearly a challenging task that here encompasses the set, props and many costumes.  

Co-director Knight is also the musical director, and he and John Todd join forces on keyboards for the accompaniment.

For community theater, this Willy Wonka is a pretty sweet treat. It continues through Oct. 30 at Keeton Theatre in Donelson. 


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