Directed by Jed Murray
At The Viking Theatre, Clontarf, from the 6th – 24th September 2016
Now, I’ve been known to complain about the diminishing scale of theatre in Greater Dublin. For a while there it was difficult to find a play running with more than 2 actors and a chair onstage.
So you can imagine my excitement when I heard that The Corps Ensemble were planning to stage Tracy Lett’s BUG. This is a play with an actual set and five actors playing five distinct roles. And Tracy Letts is one of my favourite playwright-cum-actors around. And when I heard another of that particularly rare playwright/actor breed, the highly-respected Jed Murray, was directing? Count me in.
Letts wrote BUG, his second major play, back in 1996 at the age of 31. It opened in London, travelling through Washington, Chicago and Boston before landing on Broadway in New York to considerable critical success. He has since gone on to win Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize and his play August: Osage County, the work of which he professes to be most proud, has been made into a movie starring Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep.
But BUG ain’t no August: Osage County. Although very clearly set in the same middle America, specifically Oklahoma, BUG shows us inside the lives of a very particular class of American, the class who live in grotty motels, smoke crack, and breakfast on vodka and coke. It is the story of a lonely cocktail waitress, and a Gulf war veteran with apparent paranoid delusions. Essentially a disastrous foile à deux with no happy ending on the cards, BUG explores themes of control, and weakness and love in equal measure. Now it could be argued that the plot, while certainly conceivable, is bordering on the outrageous, and that the pacing of the writing to the climax feels a little unbalanced and top-heavy. But it is the simplicity and beauty of that same writing that gives BUG it’s depth and appeal. Letts has been quoted as to his belief that motel-living, crack-tooting waitresses deserve a voice too, and in BUG he certainly gives it to them.
That is not to say that the man wrote easy roles for his actors – far from it. The roles certainly seem demanding, definitely exhausting. But the portrayal of Letts’s characters was superbly done by The Corps Ensemble. The irony of my initial excitement regarding the size of the cast, is that the play could arguably be reduced to a two hander without losing much of its necessary weight. Both Mary Murray’s and Rex Ryan’s roles seemed challenging to the max – and both were delivered to the max. In particular, Mary Murray’s performance as the piteous waitress Agnes White is utterly convincing and simply bewitching. She looks, sounds and exudes Agnes White to her very core.
Aside from a (very) few sporadic lapses into more local accents, all five performances were remarkable in their depth and characterisation which is of course always desirable but, at the Viking theatre, requisite. Because, unlike in a grander theatre house, at the Viking Theatre, there is nowhere to hide. The venue has staged many successful, less ambitious productions and the relatively small space is well-suited to them. But the BUG stage is designed to be relatively complex, and The Corps Ensemble production did not shy away from that fact. The play also uses movement and physical interaction with characters and props as a fundamental tool of storytelling, and the incredible energy created onstage by The Corps Ensemble was at times almost overwhelming to those seated in such close proximity to the action.
Simon LeBon once played the Olympia in Dublin, and the stage was simply too small to contain the man. The same could perhaps be said of the Viking Theatre and BUG. But the two performances were also electrifying, and mesmerising and unforgettable – everything a performance should be.
Actors, staging and direction conspired to make this production akin to a shot of adrenaline in the veins of the suburban audience.
It’s difficult not to envisage it exploding into a bigger venue before long.