The general Missoula public still harbors occasional confusion about how exactly things break down between the Montana Repertory Theatre and its edgier extension, Montana Rep Missoula. The two are often confused for one another because of their shared staff and artistic director, but their respective missions couldn’t be further apart—one draws its repertoire safely from the classics, the other tests audiences with more challenging contemporary fare. That distinction is drawn with all the subtlety of a cartoon Muhammad by the two companies’ respective current offerings: after a recent Missoula debut, the Rep is in the midst of touring The Trip to Bountiful, a meditative masterpiece about the meaning of home set in 1950s Texas, while MRM is launching a two-week Crystal Theatre run of Bug, a helter-skelter sci-fi thriller about worldwide conspiracies set in a seedy modern-day motel. One is full of aw-shucks, the other is full of motherfucks. Bountiful goes for understated beauty, Bug for drug abuse, gore and nudity. The two plays are as unlike each other as The English Patient and Natural Born Killers, and that sort of range within a single month makes this a rare spate of variety for fans of local theater.
Bug was written by Tracy Letts of Chicago’s esteemed Steppenwolf Theatre Company, and debuted off-Broadway in 2004 after successful runs in London and Washington, D.C. Letts has a tendency to focus on the stained underbelly of the Heartland in his work (he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for 2003’s Man From Nebraska), and Bug maintains that focus, fixed as it is exclusively in the dingy Oklahoma motel room of a drug-abusing alcoholic waitress named Agnes White (Carmen Corona). Sexy but past her prime, Agnes drinks wine from the bottle, likes her cola with a shot of vodka and snorts coke first thing in the morning; the motel’s convenient, she says, because of the daily maid service. Her only friend is R.C. (Whitney Wakimoto), a tough-as-nails lesbian who parties just as hard and introduces Agnes to a wayward stud named Peter Evans (Richard Dunbar). When R.C. hits a late-night party, Agnes and Peter engage in awkwardly flirtatious conversation—they’re both high, unsure of the other and out of practice when it comes to courting the opposite sex. The wild card in this equation is Agnes’ ex-husband, Jerry Goss (Bryce Jensen), who’s recently been let out on parole and, despite a restraining order, is bound to turn up at the motel at any time. In fact, Agnes is convinced he’s been crank-calling her for days, saying nothing just to freak her out.
Throughout the first act, Agnes and Peter develop a rapport that unveils bits and pieces of their white-trash past. Agnes lost a son—he disappeared one day in the grocery store—and is scared silly of the abusive Jerry. Peter is a Gulf War vet, a would-be lifer until things went wrong, but he hesitates to get into much more detail than that; his tooth hurts and he’s falling for Agnes and that’s about as much as he’s willing to divulge. It’s all rosy and sweet, in a drug-induced, Jerry Springer sort of way, until a bed bug bites Peter the morning after they make love. What seems like a foregone happening in their scabies-friendly environment flips Peter into Oliver Stone mode—people are after him, he says, and he got into some trouble with the Army, and who knows if the bugs are related to all that. When Agnes eventually finds another bug in Peter’s hair, there’s no consoling him.
From here Bug jumps down the rabbit hole, becoming an increasingly bizarre, improbable, bloody mess that’s just chaotic enough to let the amplified paranoia onstage overwhelm any audience cynicism toward the ridiculous storyline. The second act is as wild a 50 minutes as low-budget theater will allow: an equally lowbrow but completely separate trip from the trailer park saga that launches the play.
Bug thrives on tension, and what makes it boil are the main performances from the small cast. Corona is believable as a beaten woman content to just get high the rest of her days until meeting Peter and rediscovering her maternal side. Dunbar emerges along with the play’s storyline, transforming from a timid hanger-on into a raving and determined survivor. Perhaps the strongest showing, however, is from the comparatively little-seen Jensen as Jerry Goss—when he does appear he chews up the stage with a swagger that’s all bare knuckles and unpredictable rage.
The cast and content are a perfect fit for MRM veteran director Bobby Gutierrez. His last production with the company was the equally risqué Betty’s Summer Vacation, a modern satire that included severed male genitalia and an ominous sitcom-inspired laugh track. Bug lacks Summer Vacation’s mocking lightheartedness, but it does have its funny moments and Gutierrez manages to bring them out before washing the stage in mayhem.
Bug isn’t a play for everyone. Aside from the obvious disclaimers regarding language, violence and nudity (the latter of which is really quite tame), Bug may not play favorably to a traditional theater crowd, and that’s a good thing. The coat-and-tie audience had its day when The Trip to Bountiful played a few weeks ago, and as fulfilling and thought-provoking as that performance was, it didn’t necessarily challenge viewers or push the boundaries of local theater. Rest assured, Bug scratches that itch.
Bug plays at the Crystal Theatre now through Sunday, Feb. 19, with additional shows Tuesday, Feb. 21, through Sunday, Feb. 26. 8 PM. $10/$8 students.