On stage: Bugs of biblical proportions

Two local venues host performances of mind-bending plays

Luke Krzyzanowski Feb 5, 2007

Two new plays in Pittsburgh offer thought-provoking stories. Bug, which opened last Friday in Oakland, slices close to the heart and may not be for everyone. On the other hand, Thorton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth is truly timeless. Somehow, the same issues that are featured in a play written in 1942 apply to contemporary history: global warming, moral corruption, and the war on terror.

Bug

Bug — a dark comedy and sci-fi thriller — is not for the squeamish. Written by Tracy Letts (Man from Nebraska, Killer Joe) and directed by Shannon Cochran, the play is set to run through February 18, at the former site of the Upstage Nightclub (on Forbes Avenue).

The action takes place in the motel room of Agnes White (Lissa Brennan), a divorced and lonely cocktail waitress whose mannerisms, accent, and intellect scream white trash America. An equal opportunity substance abuser, Agnes is introduced by her lesbian biker friend RC (Miki Johnson) to Peter (Patrick Jordan), an attractive drifter but delusional schizophrenic who ends up spending the night on the floor. RC foreshadows, “Ted Bundy was good looking.”

Offstage at the beginning of Act II, Peter, still the nice guy, reenters the motel room with breakfast in hand, only to come across a crying and bleeding Agnes at the feet of Goss (David Cabot), Agnes’s ex-con ex-husband who shows up, apparently in violation of his parole, to impose on Agnes and take her money.

Following the beating, Agnes and Peter reveal their pasts to each other, growing closer all the while. The emotional openness quickly degenerates into Peter’s paranoid tales of abduction (maybe even by aliens from Ogo) and medical experimentation led by his army superiors and their government sponsors. A nod to the Gulf War Syndrome eventually turns into a conspiracy theorist’s dream of mind-control devices.

The relationship turns to sex — ostensibly love. The following morning, Peter awakens cursing frantically after being bitten by a bug. Agnes abandons all reason and allows Peter to transform her motel room into an aphid’s worst nightmare with bug-zappers and fly ribbons.

Bug plunges into insanity in the final act as Peter, covered by his own blood after trying to cut out an implanted sac of bug eggs and removing his teeth because he believes they are transmitters a la Twelve Monkeys, stabs Dr. Sweet (the psychiatrist from whom Peter is fleeing, played by Ken Bolden), and then proceeds to use circular logic to bring an already-manic Agnes to self-immolation as the pair proceeds to set the entire motel room on fire in an attempt to get rid of the bugs.

Bug is not escapist light fare, but a serious play that examines dysfunctional relationships and human weakness. “At the core it’s a love story,” said Jordan, who played Peter. The connection between Agnes and Peter, well executed by Brennan and Jordan, is palpable to the audience. However, Peter’s schizophrenia could use an added shot of realism in terms of body language. Cabot plays an abusive husband excellently; his delivery of “I love you, I’ll see you real soon,” which conveys the perfect mix of sincerity and threat, is especially convincing. Jordan, also the play’s producer, had seen Bug when it appeared in New York. “I was laughing at parts and the woman next to me was appalled at me laughing.... [*Bug*] has a very different effect on the audience.”

The Skin of Our Teeth

Close by at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, another production is running until February 11. The Skin of Our Teeth, put on by the Conservatory Theatre Company of Point Park University, features a cast entirely made up of students. Earning himself a Pulitzer Prize, Thornton Wilder wrote the play in 1942, when the world was still embroiled in war. The complexity of the play cannot be understated. The themes discussed are cleverly interspersed through anachronisms, as the Bible meets the Ice Age, not to mention modern warfare. At the time it came out, The Skin of Our Teeth was an experimental work, during which its actors broke their characters to address the audience directly.

The Skin of Our Teeth features the Antrobus family, whose characters are based on the Biblical figures of Adam, Eve, Cain, and an absent (murdered) Abel. Mr. Antrobus (Erik Cheski) is the innovative inventor of the wheel, lever, and other historical inaccuracies, which pepper the play throughout its entirety. He vacillates between hope and despair during the course of events, which include three threats to the existence of human civilization: an ice age, a flood of biblical proportions (featuring Noah’s Ark), and war. Mrs. Antrobus (Sarah Bordenet) serves as the foundation of the family and is almost a Stepford wife, strongly advocating pre-sexual revolution morals and proper family values. Filling the leading role is Sabina (Lindsay Schramm), who is actually two characters: in Acts I and III, a sassy maid of the Antrobus household in Excelsior (ever upwards), N.J., with a Chicken Little world outlook; and a pageant show seductress in Act II. Schramm’s role is perhaps the most complicated, because she plays both the biblical snake and a member of the family.

“The play has a timeless quality,” said Joe Scarillo, the stage manager. The overall clearest message that one can take away from The Skin of Our Teeth is to keep a stiff upper lip when faced with the world’s problems. Questions are raised regarding family relationships and child rearing as Henry (the Cain character played by Jeffrey A. Dudek) becomes increasingly estranged from his family, whose members resent his murder of his brother.

“Anyway, in 100 years it’ll all be the same,” explains Sabina. Although this may be cynical, The Skin of Our Teeth ends with Sabina challenging the audience to write the story of humanity. The actors are condemned to reenact history, while hope for change is thrust upon the audience’s shoulders.