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Bug in the Ointment 

Off-Ramp's new production leads to copious head-scratching

The power of suggestion is at the very heart of Tracy Lett's dark dreamscape, Bug. So don't be surprised if, by evening's end, audience members begin scratching their arms and legs -- or, more likely, their heads. Upon leaving the Grandel Theatre, viewers are likely to think: What are we to make of this?

Here's what we do know: Agnes White is a waitress living in a bleak world of no tomorrows. Her marriage failed, and a restraining order doesn't stop her jailbird ex-husband (Steve Isom) from turning up to bully her. The lethargic Agnes has "hermitized" herself by moving into a seedy Oklahoma motel. A lesbian biker friend (Effie Johnson) introduces Agnes to Peter, the shy son of a preacher man whose sensitivity allows him to "pick up on things." But Peter, a veteran of the 1991 Gulf War, is also one of the walking wounded. He's not even looking for sex, just a friend. And Agnes needs a friend.

Thus far, Bug is fairly conventional theater. Its use of nudity to visualize the shared plight of two lonely down-and-outers even calls to mind the gentle Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. Then the aphids arrive, and the plot takes a sharp right turn from reality. You know what aphids are, don't you? (Don't feel bad if you don't; Agnes doesn't either.) They're insect that suck the sap from plants -- but these aphids are sucking Peter's blood, which aphids don't do. So what's going on here? Is Peter paranoid? Are his delusions devouring reality? Are the bugs a hallucinatory outgrowth of the cocaine that is being snorted liberally onstage? And is Agnes so desperate for love that she's willing to allow Peter's obsessions to become her own?

As the plot spirals into end-of-the-world surrealism, Bug becomes an empty vessel waiting to be filled. A production can f ollow any of a number of routes. It can play up the bizarre comedy; it can heighten the science-fiction; it can shock the audience with thrills and chills. Curiously, this version, part of the St. Louis Repertory Theatre's Off-Ramp series, doesn't follow any of those paths. Throughout the evening the show's emphasis remains focused on the characters, as if trying to wedge an original new play into an old form. In so doing, some of Bug's edginess is lost -- yet the action onstage remains compelling. So who's to say that this more-conventional approach to the story isn't valid?

A similar ambivalence surrounds the cast. As Agnes, Bernadette Quigley does a fine job of conveying listless despair, but perhaps she'd be a little more fine with a little less twang. She doesn't need to work so hard at telling us that Agnes is an Okie redneck. Jay Stratton brings a lovely sensibility, reminiscent of a young Christopher Walken, to Peter. "People can do things to you," he says, and the quiet agony in Stratton's haunted eyes is dead-on. Stratton and Quigley work well together and keep the play moving, but the performance that seems truest to the text is that of Gary Wayne Barker as a late-arriving physician who might (or might not) be a kindred spirit to Dr. Strangelove. Barker's mercurial, enigmatic portrayal is a telling glimpse into how off-kilter and spooky the entire evening might have been.

One element is definitely amiss here. Not only does the sound design not enhance the story's tension, it doesn't even tell us where we are. So few cars drive by the motel, you'd think we were at Norman Bates' remote desert inn rather than on the outskirts of Oklahoma City. And the ominous helicopter that's supposed to be hovering overhead sounds more like the crop-duster from North by Northwest.

So what are we to make of Off-Ramp's Bug? Hard to say. This is a valid interpretation of the play; it's just not the production you're likely to have seen in your head if you've read the script. But so what? Who among us shares the same dreams? Or, for that matter, the same nightmares?

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