Sunday, February 28, 2010

"BUG" Loose in Center City

* The slow-moving fog blanketing downtown Springfield and flickering house lights at the Vandivort Center Theatre cast the perfect mood for a live-action psychological thriller. And that's exactly what the Springfield Contemporary Theatre gave us in the form of Bug, a conspiracy theory shocker from the mind of playwright Tracy Letts, and the capable hands of director Nathan Shelton. Based in the present-day outskirts of Oklahoma City, Bug centers on the life of Agnes, a perpetual loner who lives in a seedy motel room. Through her good friend R.C., Agnes is introduced to Peter, a quirky outsider with a penchant for awkward conversation and lack of social graces. Agnes and Peter hit it off and his brief occupation in her motel room quickly becomes an intimate relationship. Agnes' ex-husband, ex-convict Jerry Goss looms his threatening mug, forcing Agnes and Peter (ever) closer. When Peter discovers the beginnings of a bug infestation his background and insecurities come to light, tethering Agnes to a sinking ship as the play escalates in a series of graphic twists. Blood-letting (on a tribal level) and physical violence punctuate the chain of events that lead to the conclusion of this rural gothic horror.

* Agnes was truthfully and realistically portrayed in an emotional performance by Dawn McClain. An actress better known for her quick wit as a DJ on 96.5, McClain evoked the loneliness Agnes submits to in the isolation of her motel room. Her terse movements and crossed arms marked the highs and lows of a woman tortured into harmful relationships. McClain captured the essence of the character in a delightfully frenzied monologue that appeared in the climax of the production, a hysteric fit that showed all three dimensions of a well-written character.

* T.J. Pederson, in the role of Peter, guided the transformation of a geeky, gentlemanly love interest into a conspiracy-spouting AWOL soldier. With a dancer's grace, Pederson moved from awkward stranger to the master of the castle/motel room. His commanding physical appearance left me hypnotized when he crawled, a la Gregor Samsa, across the floor and leapt to absurd moments of violence. Pederson gave a captivating performance.

* Bryan Moses raised the bar on dramatic tension and breathed life (heavily) into the terrifying form of Jerry Goss (known as Goss to Agnes). As the tallest figure in the room there was little Moses needed to do, physically, to demean those around him, but it is a unique talent for an actor to make the audience care for a man who is an obvious hazard to those around him. By the end of the play one could almost understand the reasons behind Jerry Goss' heavy-handed actions.

* Rounding out the rest of the cast were Lisa Murphy and Heath Hillhouse, who played R.C. and Dr. Sweet, respectively. Murphy, a delightful new addition to the local theatre scene (seen in Evil Dead: the musical, and A Christmas Carol), provided both the serious and party-hearty sides for Agnes only friend. Hillhouse, on the other hand, dipped into the byzantine as the sarcastic Dr. Sweet, a pot-smoking, though easily likable, mad doctor-type authority figure. I wanted to believe he had the best intentions for the play's lead characters, but his nature made him difficult to trust. His death at the hands of Peter was a play on silent suffering, an unsettling lull that reminded me of a certain scene in the war epic Saving Private Ryan.

* The technical side of the stage also had much to offer. Expanding on his role as director, Shelton played his hand at set and make-up effects, and also acted as sound designer (with an able assist from Dawn McClain). His set provided expanded motel room dimensions, with walls set back that gave his actors more moving room. All the necessary assets and set pieces for the script-mandated action were there: a sink, fridge, bathroom, door-less closet baring its essentials to the audience, bed, radiator, front door, and more. As director, Nathan positioned his actors in their natural habitats in the context of the motel environment and as set designer he gave them the hardware, with an assist by properties designer Dennis Stewart. The only unfortunate in this line-up was the series of khaki string/rope that lined the ceiling of the set. Its only purpose was in the second half of the show and didn 't offer any for the first half, except to distract one from the realistic setting. In the realm of make-up effects, Shelton gave exceptional work. His was the hand that designed the bloody images on Pederson 's chest and the dark circles under McClain's eyes, capturing her character's age and social situation. Shelton worked his hands and ears in the sound design corner, ably assisted by McClain, to create a carefully plotted auditory experience that accentuates this thriller. Radio music (the perfect track selections), helicopter propellers, phone rings, smoke alarms, and a clunky radiator all served to punctuate dramatic turns and key beats of the script. The sound set the tone, menacing and foreshadowing important elements that accentuated this thrilling story.

* Lacey Pacheco's lighting design captured both the intimate moments and the dynamic, manic action in full detail. Even in the evening scenes when darkness threatened to cover the actors in shadow, we were exposed to their every movement, their every turn and shifting head. We even felt our hearts sink to our stomachs when we heard the din of noisome bugs, invisible in reality, yet all-consuming in the final moments of the show, as the light perfectly conveyed the sense that we, too, could see the dense threat of carnivorous bugs, covering the walls.

* Not to be forgotten are the hands that painted the set, Joe Kuntz, who lead this crew of talented painters. The first thing on view to the audience was the set itself and the paint upon it, applying the pressure of tone-setting perfection for the paint crew. However, I have only good things to say about the outcome of such a duty. The dark colors drew attention to the somber and dramatic elements of the show, setting the tone for the violence and carnage to come. In an environment where we should expect to find flower-print wallpaper we were exposed to a grungy maroon-type color with bubbling wallpaper and watermarks staining the walls, a clear indication that all is not well on the outskirts of Oklahoma City.

* Bug ran January 8 - 10, 14 - 17, and 21 - 23 at the Vandivort Center Theatre on Walnut in downtown Springfield, MO.