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This production is
Chris Jones recommends ★★★
Critic's Pick ★★★

Highly Recommended
top shelf, realistic acting
Hot Pick
electric performance

fantastic, in the most superlatively perverse possible sense

Chris Jones recommends
by Chris Jones, June 1, 2011

'Bug' at Redtwist Theatre: Up-close production can't help but get under your skin

At one point in Kimberly Senior's juicy Redtwist Theatre production of Tracy Letts' “Bug,” I completely forgot about the dead body that had been lying on the floor for several minutes. Until I happened to shift in my seat, and found my foot touching soft flesh. And I didn't even think I'd picked a particularly prominent seat.

Even more so than its similarly intimate North Side peers — Profiles Theatre, Steep Theatre and A Red Orchid (where Michael Shannon once starred in a memorable production of this very same play) — Redtwist Theatre can truly be microtheater. Much is being made currently in other cities about the trend for theater in people's homes or apartments. In Chicago, one does not need to sit in someone else's living room to share an actor's sweat. We've got places down the street for that.

Senior, whose production of Martin McDonagh's “The Pillowman” was a previous hit in this space, shares directing and design credit here with Jack Magaw. As soon as you pass through the lobby, your can see why: the duo clearly has tried, as far as possible, to build an actual, life-sized, seedy Oklahoma motel room inside a black box, and simply shove the audience in as many unobtrusive corners as possible, without seeming to betray the shape or dimension of the room. It's such a remarkable feat that the room becomes like an additional character.

From several seats, you could hit the lights for the actors. Or beat them to the bathroom. Or the Raid.
“Bug,” which was first produced in London in 1996 and made into a movie by William Friedkin in 2007, is about a pair of lonely hearts — Agnes (Jacqueline Grandt) and Peter (Andrew Jessop) whose little motel-room affair du coeur goes awry when Peter, a veteran of the war in the Persian Gulf, becomes convinced that bugs are burrowing their way under his skin. In front of our eyes — just a few inches in front, in this case — the couple dissolves into a putrefying paranoiac world, perhaps of Agnes and Peter's own invention, perhaps not.

Letts is clearly using the bugs as a metaphor for various governmental misdeeds. But in style, the piece is not unlike “Killer Joe” in the blending of black comedy and extreme violence. It's just that “Bug” has a sci-fi tilt; you might think of it as Sam Shepard meets David Cronenberg.

At Redtwist, you'll think of it mainly as intense and involving. Grandt's performance isn't the most powerful in the world, but it's world weary and needy enough that Peter's meltdown has significant consequences for her lost soul. Jessop is too straight-laced and buttoned down to fully be the center of a play that is essentially a meditation on paranoia. But even if the wilder sexual and violent edges of the piece are not as fully or as feely expressed as they were at A Red Orchid, you still feel the jolts of tension between normalcy and the terrifyingly weird — Jessop certainly shows us the potentially ordinary man whose insides are being eaten away, and there is a value to that. There is also lively supporting work from Karen Hill, Tommy Lee Johnston and Michael Colucci.

For Letts, “Bug” was the end of a phase, or era, I suppose. Seeing this profoundly fascinating play again now is especially interesting in the wake of “August: Osage County,” an epic that some theater in Chicago some day will doubtless let fly about six inches from your face.

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An intense, meticulously detailed revival of Tracy Letts’s creeper is bound to make your skin crawl.

By John Beer

Entering Senior and Magaw’s impeccably shabby design for Letts’s 1996 creepfest means walking through a door labeled “19” to take your seat in an uncannily convincing replica of a downscale Oklahoma motel. Add in the neon sign partly visible through the doorframe when characters enter and exit, along with sound designer Christopher Kriz’s distant arguments and traffic, and the result is one of the most intense theatrical experiences you’re likely to have. Plenty of productions promise to transport you imaginatively somewhere else, but very few succeed like this Bug.

The play itself is a frightening, sad meditation about drug abuse masquerading as a paranoid thriller. Gulf War I veteran Peter (Jessop) natters on about biochips and surveillance, and he drops a suggestion that he might be Oklahoma City’s infamous John Doe #2, but he and lonely Agnes (Grandt) wouldn’t be cooking up these elaborate conspiracy theories if they weren’t also cooking fearsome quantities of coke and meth. Grandt and Jessop start off slow—both seem altogether too grounded and sedate for the warlock assassin lifestyle—but they hit the high notes once the second act’s Grand Guignol begins in earnest. As she did in the same space last season with The Pillowman, Senior modulates handily between emotional drama and visceral physicality; she might just be our theatrical version of Kathryn Bigelow.
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Highly Recommended

Redtwist Theatre has become one of my favorite Storefronts, in that they select plays of great intensity and put them into small sets where we the audience are the perverbial “fly on the wall”. In their current production, “Bug” by Tracy Letts, we are not the only insect in the sleazy motel room, somewhere in Oklahoma (a very realistic set by Jack Magaw, that will have many people remembering some of theri college drinking days and the places they woke up in, the morning after). This is a dark comedy that truly deals with Redtwist’s theme of the season- FEAR. But while this is a play that deals with fear it also deals with trust, lonliness and paranoia, there is also mention of Government conspiracy and although there is some heavy hints that this could be real, Letts never takes us all the way. The story as directed by Kimberly Senior and Jack Magaw is about Agnes (Jaqueline Grandt makes this woman very real, almost someone who lives down the street that has lacked luck in her life), a woman who’s husband is just getting out of prison and who many years ago lost her young son. She resides in a motel room with a hot plate, coffee machine and small fridge. Nothing special, but to her, home  where she gets all included except her phone calls). Her best friend, R.C. (deftly handled by KC Karen Hill) comes by for  a visit and brings a young man she has picked up, Peter (yet another dynamic portrayal by Andrew Jessop, who keeps growing as an actor with each performances at Redtwist). Peter is a younger man, all alone, an ex-military man who is hiding something of his own and is also a lonely person. He has no actual home, so Agnes allows him to stay on her floor. As the days go by, these loners find themselves attracted to each other and something very special blossoms between them. During these days, they start unleashing the information in their past lives which has brought them to where they are today.

During these days, there are scary visits from Agenes’ ex, Jerry (Tommy Lee Johnston) and a few from R.C., but of greater import, they find bugs, in fact an infestation of what we call “bed-bugs” but as this story evolves, these are not ordinary bugs but part of a plot by the government, although we are never really give a proper explanation of why. This story is not about the actual “Bug” or how it became part of the lives of these two people. In fact, are we ever really certain that these bugs even exist! It is a story about a sick person being able to convince a weaker minded person that there is in fact a government conspiracy and that people are tracking him down to use these bugs to take over the world. Is Peter really part of some major experiment by our government? Is the government holding Agnes’s missing son so that she can help them to capture Peter? Is R.C. invoved in this scheme and did she set up Agnes so that she and her girlfriend will be able to get custody of her child? Is Dr. Sweet (a very convincing character played by Michael Colucci, Artistic Director of Redtwist) truly out to help Peter and assist Agnes or is he part of the plot? There are many questions here and to answer any of them would take away from the sheer artistry of what Redtwist does with this fine production.

What you will witness in viewing this production is the cleverness of Tracy Letts in writing this contrived ant-government piece (or is it?) and a solid cast of players who make the action come alive in one of the smallest of our Chicago theaters. Note: this is an open seating production and if you opt to sit in the single row beneath the Motel window facing the bed, be prepared to stay alert at all times, you will be in the action, but the actors will not even acknowledge your presence--just go with it. As I said earlier, this is a very small space and the set is filled with props and furniture (Jenny Pinson) and unlike many plays, the entire audience must clear the motel room during intermission so maid service can come in and change the sheets and stuff (probably a union thing) and then you will be led back in. Please note, that during this production, the theater will only have one available bathroom, so intermission might be just a few minutes longer.

Magaw and Senior have handled the costumes and lighting design for this show. While unusual, it is a sign of their having special ideas that are important to the way they wish to pain  their picture of what Letts is saying. Derek Gaspar and Chris Rickett handled the fight choreography and Christopher Kriz, the sound. This is  a powerful play that deals with many subjects and for those of you who are anti-insect, you may just find yourself itching, although there are no bugs in the play. Be prepared for an intense two hours and an ending that will leave you speechless, but one that truly makes sense for these characters and the love that has drawn them to each other. Fear is something that comes easily but often never leaves you. Go to Redtwist to watch just how powerful fear can be in “Bug.”

This is a small venue, so order your tickets today. There are several fine but affordable dining spots right on the street. We tried Francesca’s Bryn Mawr tonight ad were quite impressed with our dinner and desert (a marvelous bread pudding that will knock your sox off). They are directly across the street at 1039 Bryn Mawr- I suggest making a reservation(773-506-9261) so you can dine and attend the play with no rushing about--you don’t want to be exhausted before the viewing of this production. God knows, you might be after the final curtain. Enjoy!
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by Kerry Reid

Tracy Letts's skin-crawling play made its local debut at tiny A Red Orchid Theatre nearly ten years ago, and it returns in an even more claustrophobic venue. Directors Kimberly Senior and Jack Magaw make a character of the scuzzy motel room where Gulf War I vet Peter opens the heart and infests the mind of a grieving, hard-drinking waitress named Agnes. Jacqueline Grandt initially feels a tad mannered as Agnes, but once Andrew Jessop's tensile Peter gets tangled up in her sheets and soul, the show becomes a full-throttle exploration of how loneliness, loss, and poverty can turn a healing relationship into a co-dependent hell.
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reviewed by John Olson

As successful as Tracy Letts has become as a writer, with August: Osage County playing in huge houses on Broadway and on tour, his Bug is one play which, we might hope, will never be done in a large venue. Establishing a sense of claustrophobia is essential to his story of a Gulf War vet who believes himself to be infested with insects planted by sinister government forces, and what could be more claustrophobic than feeling attacked by forces within one's own body? The action takes place inside the tiny motel room rented by Agnes, an Oklahoma City divorcee who meets and becomes involved with Peter, the paranoid veteran.

In this production, the storefront space of Redtwist Theatre serves the piece perfectly, with the set turning the theatre's tiny auditorium into the motel room. There's even an entrance for the audience through a numbered motel room door next to a retro "MOTEL" neon sign, just past the room's draped window. Viewers are seated on opposite sides of a playing area decorated with grungily realistic props (by Jenny Pinson), like an intermittently working air conditioner, cheap motel furniture, tacky art and a chintzy bedspread. Half the audience is next to a most convincing-looking motel bathroom. The setting is so critical to establishing the suspense of the piece, that sets, costumes and lighting were co-designed by co-directors Kimberly Senior and Jack Magaw. Sounds of the outside world—like semi-trucks rushing down the highway—complete the environment, courtesy of sound designer Christopher Kriz.

All of this is just a backdrop for some top shelf, realistic acting by the cast of five, who could probably be as believable on a bare stage. Most of the stage time belongs to Jacqueline Grandt and Andrew Jessop as Agnes and Peter, who handle the play's early quieter moments as deftly as its later ones when their madness, volumes, and activity levels escalate. Grandt's Agnes is rough and earthy, clearly damaged by the traumas of a failed marriage to a physically abusive man and the kidnapping two years earlier of their six-year-old son. She makes Agnes' seduction into Peter's delusions a subtle but convincing one, maintaining a certain appearance of lucidity even as she believes herself to be inhabited by government-planted intelligence-gathering insects. Jessop plays Peter as initially timid and guarded, also slipping into madness gradually (apparently as his psychotropic meds are wearing off), but arriving at a much more explosive and violent place of self-mutilation and threat to others. Jessop takes advantage of the role's opportunities for flashy acting, but he earns each of his moments. There's great support as well from Tommy Lee Johnston as Agnes' menacing ex, KC Karen Hill as Agnes' lesbian bartender friend R.C., and Michael Colucci as Dr. Sweet.

Bug premiered in 1996, just a year after the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, and Oklahoma native Letts ties Peter's paranoia directly to convicted bomber Timothy McVeigh and even Unabomber Ted Kaczynski to make Bug a commentary on the widespread fears of government conspiracy that surfaced so frighteningly at that time. Letts's trademark caustic humor comes through in places, but more through Peter's critical view of society than from Letts's sarcasm toward Peter or Agnes. His intention seems to be to show us that their delusions are very real to them, implausible and undocumented as they are to anyone else. The two are loners, not only marginalized from society but isolated through mental illness as well, and trapped in their own minds and the tiny little box that is Agnes' motel room.

When you get an opportunity to see such capable actors perform for just 70 (or so) [40] audience members at a time, you don't ever want to pass it up. With Bug, though, it's really the best way to experience this play in the (bug-infested) flesh.

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chicagonow"BUG": Bites Deep, Leaves Mark!
Reviewed by Katy Walsh

A woman battles loneliness.  A man fights to be free.  They both want to escape the past.  A crackpipe brings them together.  Two people find love in a flea-bitten motel.  Redtwist Theatre presents BUG.

Agnes' life sucks!  Her abusive ex has been paroled. Her son has been missing for ten years. Her home is a motel room.  When her waitress pal brings over a vile of coke and a quirky guy, the partying leads to a sleepover.  Peter awkwardly charms Agnes into shacking up.  Their bliss is cut short by domestic disturbances.  Bugs infest the room.  As they frantically try to exterminate the problem, more unwanted creatures arrive!  Their past infiltrates their present. The pests won't leave them alone. BUG gets under the skin with a spiraling-out-of-control intensity!

Playwright Tracy Letts pens a riveting conspiracy. Letts' imagination spins a web of intrigue. Along with the drama, Letts masterfully sprinkles in dark comedy relief. Director Kimberly Senior escalates it with bloody urgency.  Senior authentically paces the first act with overlapping dialogue and an awkward, bumbling build-up.  In the second act, Senior zaps, swats, and stings for a chaotic frenzy.  The impact is compelling and a little gross.  There are vivid enactments of being bugged.  (The lady next to me murmured 'I'm going to be sick.')  The insect illusion is aided by set and prop designers; Senior, Jack Magaw and Jenny Pinson.  It's a standard roadside motel room.  The ugly art, brightly-lit bathroom, window to the parking lot and weird-functioning air conditioner is impressive in itself.  Act 2's rearrangement is gawk-able.  During intermission, every potential extermination element is heaped into the room.  The look is so startling that itching occurs immediately.

Leading the bug hunt, Jacqueline Grandt (Agnes) drawls in a casual, hardened manner.  Grandt skillfully personifies a woman under the influence.  First, drugs and alcohol buzz her into an unaffected state. But then, she falls hard for Andrew Jessop (Peter).  Grandt loves with a vulnerable craziness.  Grandt's monologue deconstructing the truth is heart-breaking lunacy.  Jessop spooks upon arrival.  His wide-eyed presence brings out 'what is he up to?' suspicions.  Initially, he's clumsy and oddly sweet.  Later, his shocking absurdities are delivered with abrupt ferocity.  Jessop prompts continuous 'oh my God' reactions.  Along with a strong supporting cast, this BUG bites deep, leaving its mark!  It's an unforgettable infestation. 

A Redtwist first timer, Keaton describes it with 'rustic paranoid tragedy.
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Chicago Theatre Hot Picks for June
Reviewed by Krista Krauss

“Bug” written by renowned Steppenwolf ensemble member Tracy Letts, is set in rural Oklahoma, and tells the tale of two individuals alienated from society who find solace from isolation in each other’s company. Agnes, a local waitress who has experienced great loss in her life, meets Peter, a new to town war veteran. Mix in some drugs, paranoia, and a whole lot of loneliness, and you get psychological manifestations of bugs. But the bugs only serve to bring the two closer together, while simultaneously pushing everyone else further away. The more obvious it becomes that the bugs are bogus, the more twisted their minds become to justify their existence. Kimberly Senior directs this (literally) mind-blowing physiological thriller in the intimate Redtwist space, leaving the audience with the feeling of their own creepy-crawlies.

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CTBeatReviewed by Keith Ecker

You don’t need a theatre critic to tell you that Tracy Letts is a Chicago treasure. The prolific playwright and actor is one of the few local talents whose name is instantly recognized outside the city limits. Much of his reputation was built after he deservedly won a Tony and Pulitzer Prize for August: Osage County. His earlier works serve as under-polished precursors to this contemporary classic. Although they may fall short of the dramatic heights and depths achieved in August: Osage County, they still retain all those identifiable markings of a Letts play: southern settings, sinister characters and dark comedy.

Originally written in 1996, Bug was Letts’ second play to pen (the first being the critically acclaimed Killer Joe). True to Letts’ style, the entire piece takes place in a cheap Oklahoma motel room (think wood paneling, fluorescent-lit bathrooms and tacky generic wall art). It is here that we meet the room’s perpetual resident Agnes (a committed Jacqueline Grandt). Agnes is a woman on the verge of a breakdown. Her gravelly voice is an indication of her devotion to nicotine; her frazzled hair and shabby clothes denote her world-weariness; her cocaine habit reflects the bottomless void she so desperately desires to fill.

Enter Peter (Andrew Jessop), a fresh-faced stranger who is dropped off at the motel room by Agnes’ friend R.C. (KC Karen Hill). Peter’s quiet voice and boyish looks are disarming, which soon put Agnes at ease. In fact, she is so at ease with Peter that it doesn’t take long for her to jump into bed with him.

Shortly after they consummate their relationship, things begin to go awry. Peter discovers a bug in their bed, an aphid to be exact. This initiates Peter’s steady decent into a conspiracy-theory madness that involves the U.S. government, a team of doctors and mind-controlling insects. Meanwhile, Agnes remains by his side, digging out burrowing bugs from her skin and shunning her friends who refuse to believe her.

Redtwist Theatre is behind this production of Bug. And for the most part it scores big with its down-and-out, gritty tone and steady pacing. Grandt’s acting chops really shine through as she completely embodies her pitiful character. As Agnes, Grandt teeters between a strong-headed woman and a fragile loner, the former merely serving as a mask for the latter. This makes her relationship with the deranged Peter all the more believable, even when the script ventures into its darkest moments. Meanwhile, Jessop portrays Peter with a fair amount of restraint. He purposefully plays low key when the character is first introduced, a smart move when you’re expected to continue to crank up the intensity-dial as the play moves along.

One performance that could be stronger is Tommy Lee Johnston‘s portrayal of Jerry Goss, Agnes’ possessive and intimidating ex-lover. Johnston lacks the fierce energy the role requires. For instance, when Jerry raises a hand to Agnes, Johnston appears to hold back emotionally, denying the scene of a certain genuineness. This is critical to the play, as Goss’ inhumanity toward Agnes is meant to further rationalize her blind devotion to Peter.

Directors Kimberly Senior and Jack Magaw deserve some of the credit for the play’s even-handed pacing. However, they also are partially to blame for its comedic misfires. True, Letts’ brand of dark comedy can be difficult for an audience to pick up on, usually because it’s really dark. After all, how many people would laugh at a woman getting forcefully sodomized by a chicken wing as seen in Killer Joe? But if put into the proper context, if given the proper subtle cues, these scenes can be funny. And unfortunately, Senior and Macgaw miss this mark, directing Bug with too much gravity. True, funny one-line zingers hit, but the progress of Peter and Agnes’ ridiculous unraveling does not. To Senior and Macgaw’s defense, it’s a tough task to balance being true to the moment and indicating that the moment, despite being horrific, is also funny.

Though Redtwist’s staging of Bug fails to thrill and delight to the level of other productions of Letts’ work, it’s still a very entertaining piece of theatre. Grandt’s electric performance alone is worth the ticket price. If you’re a fan of the darker side of theatre, you’ll enjoy Bug.

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storefront theater at its gritty, muscular finest

reviewed by Catey Sullivan

In putting Tracy Letts' Bug on their season, the talented folk of Redtwist Theatre took a bold step. The last people to stage this profane, gruesome and shockingly hilarious tale of a massive, possibly hallucinatory infestation? That’d be A Red Orchid Theatre, wherein no less than Mike Shannon and Kate Buddeke starred as lovers trapped in a violent vortex of apocalyptic aphids and conspiracy theories. Shannon – now properly referred to as Oscar Nominee Michael Shannon - and Buddeke were indelible, giving performances that made for ginormous metaphorical footprints for any who would attempt to stage the show later. That was then. Even for we oldsters who so vividly remember those definitive performances, Redtwist’s staging successfully erases the shadows of productions past and makes Bug their own.

Directed by Kimberly Senior and Jack MacGaw, Bug is absolutely sick. And by sick we mean fantastic, in the most superlatively perverse possible sense. The story is, as Letts understatedly put it in an interview earlier this year, “a strong cup of coffee.”  It  definitely isn’t for those who prefer gentle romantic comedies or, for that matter, any sort of comedy wherein the protagonists are not covered with blood and gouging clawing their own skin off in a sort of do-it-yourself attempt at delousing by Act II.

Bug starts conventionally enough as Agnes (Jacqueline Grandt), a weary, middle-ageish waitress, comes home from work, “home “ being a depressingly generic, decidedly non-upscale motel. It’s the sort of place where you don’t want your bare feet touching the carpet and the most lavish amenity is a Radio Shack clock radio. The precise location of the hotel is never specified in Bug, but this isn’t a place that is anywhere near the center of anything. It’s a somewhere on the dubious outskirts, a dismal darkness on the edge of town. In Senior and Magaw’s set design, the audience is right in the room with Agnes, voyeurs to a scene that’s as lonesome as an Edward Hopper painting, but wholly void of beauty. This is place of stale cigarette smoke and unwashed dishes caked in week-old catsup.

Dumping her tips in a jar, lighting up a cigarette and pulling on a pair of tatty Daisy Dukes, Grandt establishes an instantly familiar character without saying a word. This is the sort of woman stuck forever on the margin. She’ll never move up to a career that doesn’t require a name tag, take a vacation that requires a passport or see a bank balance that has more than four figures.

The scene set, the plot gets moving with the arrival of Agnes’ lesbian friend R.C. (Karen Hill) and Peter (Andrew Jessop), a man R.C. met at a party. Firing up crack pipes, the three start to get their weekend on.
Letts’ dialogue reveals crucial background information with amazing grace, making exposition sound as natural and spontaneous as ordinary conversation. We learn that R.C.’s partner is in a custody battle for her only child, that Agnes’ scary ex- has just been released from prison and that her six-year-old son disappeared in a supermarket years earlier. In Grandt’s fearless performance, the burden of that vanishing is apparent in Agnes’ every step. There’s a heaviness to her movements that has nothing to do with weight and everything to do with years of carrying millstones of sorrow, anger and guilt. Peter, by contrast, is something of a cipher – he’s got an oddly respectful demeanor and speaks with an old-school chivalry that manages to be both somewhat creepy and appealing.

Bug simmers through the first act. At intermission, Letts has yet to ignite the fuse that will take Bug from being a dark comedy of fairly typical dysfunctional relationships to a five-alarm, blood-spattered apocalyptic maelstrom meltdown of sex, self-mutilation and the swarming specter of radioactive insects. That lull before the storm is part of Bug’s effectiveness. Once things start going oh so very wrong, the sound and fury seems all the more intense because of the prior comparative calm.

Letts’ writing makes it impossible to detail much of the plot without revealing huge spoilers, so we’ll simply note that quiet, gentle, respectful Peter has a dark side. And that side starts surfacing like larva from fly eggs on dog poop shortly after intermission.

Senior and Magaw have directed this show well, eliciting performances that manage to be as powerful as a plague of locusts without jumping the shark into over-the-top caricature. Peter and Agnes are extreme characters thrashing about in an extreme situation that could easily seem silly if the performances don’t ring true. There’s not a false note between them.

Grandt escalates from quiet desperation to howling desperation in marvelously calibrated crescendo. It’s worth noting that she spends most of the play clad only in a pair of underpants and a bra. It’s an intensely vulnerable state of (un)dress, but Grandt commits to the role with the abandon of a knight charging into battle in full body armor. She’s living, proof that despite what the lady mags would have you believe, it is possible to be fierce with absolutely no airbrushing.

As for Mr. Andrew Jessop: What we have here is a performance with the strength of a legion of marauding body lice storming the epidural front in steel-toed combat boots.

As is the case with Agnes, Peter destructs (and sheds his clothing) as Bug progresses. He’s tidy and buttoned up on first entrance, a contained gentleman whose only sign of imbalance is a readiness to light up the crack pipe. It’s a readiness that creates a sense of disconnect. Peter looks like an Eagle Scout; his facility with rock is jarring. Still, he handles himself with such demure politeness you believe he’s every inch the steady, loving influence that Agnes has craved for so long. Which makes his descent into a skin-flaying, tooth-pulling frenzy all the more shocking. Memo to those who had to look away during the Nazi dentist scene in “Marathon Man”: Bug is not safe.

Playing out in a matchbox-sized space, Bug is about as claustrophobic as storefront theater gets. (By the end, the destruction of Agnes’ hotel room is so complete, the audience can’t leave until the stagehands clear the upended bed away from the exit.) It is also storefront theater at its gritty, muscular finest.