Sex and Blood: Dangerous Liaisons is eye candy at Theatre Memphis, Bug’s an impressive mess at TheatreWorks

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Peter and Agnes stare into the zapper
  • Peter and Agnes stare into the zapper
In uncertain times there is one thing I know for sure: I am grateful to every God, devil, and hero in the combined pantheon of Global myth that I’m not Sylvia Wilson, the stage manager for the New Moon Theatre Company’s ambitious and strongly acted production of Tracy Letts’ horror/drama Bug. The ridiculous mess left on stage at the end of every show must be positively spirit-breaking. Bottles are strewn from one end of the theater to the other amid rumpled bedding, multiple insecticide containers and bits of aluminum foil. The floor is slick with water and fake blood although it’s never as messy as the lives of Lett’s broken characters.

Bug is hardcore pulp and a special treat for anybody who ever stayed up late to hear the guests on Art Bell’s syndicated Coast-to-Coast radio show weave every conspiracy that ever existed about shadow governments and aliens into a crazy fabric of alternative space time. It’s a grotesque love story about an intermittently stable woman with no self worth and a charismatic but dangerously paranoid Gulf war veteran who may be but probably isn’t the parasite-infested end-result of a mad Government experiment gone South. These characters are hard cases: intelligent but isolated, sick, ignorant, deep into their booze and hopeless from lights up.

“I’m not an axe murderer,” Peter (John Dylan Atkins) says early on telegraphing to everybody who’s ever picked up a trashy novel that he’s another kind of murderer. Or he soon will be.

Letts revels in druggy, voyeuristic excess and gore hounds and Halloween thrill seekers with the patience to make it to the end of this talky psychodrama will get their share of the ultra-violence.

As over the top as it may be Bug took on special resonance when I sat down to the news after last Sunday’s matinee performance and read about the mass shooting in Wisconsin. In addition to all the rest Letts' play is also a domestic nightmare. Tracy Hansom plays Agnes, a dive cocktail waitress whose sadistic ex’s probably been putting the fear in her since he got out of prison after a two-year stretch, and he puts it in her for sure when he shows up horny and throwing fists. The Wisconsin shooter also had a history of domestic abuse. He’d been stalking his estranged wife too, slashing her tires tires and threatening to douse her with gasoline and set her world on fire.

Not to spoil things too much but Bug ends in a great, fully naked, gasoline-accelerated conflagration that, for being accomplished with nothing but light, skin and sound, burns hotter than anything that happens on stage in Theatre Memphis’s lavish take on Christopher Hampton’s Dangerous

Danger, Danger!
  • Danger, Danger!
Liaisons.

There’s a lot right about Jerry Chipman’s take on Liaisons, a frequently revisited story of hateful libertines crushing people’s souls because they can. Christopher McCollum’s unit set — a faintly abstracted art salon is — is brilliantly illuminated by Jeremy Allen Fisher. Andre Bruce Ward’s opulent 18th-Century gowns are stunning and lovers of over-the-top costume drama will not be disappointed. When you look past the scenic virtuosity things get dicier.

I liked Liaisons’ brisk pace and crisp, almost but not quite presentational style. The well-spoken words gave the play an unexpected storytelling vibe that makes the twisted tale of sexual terrorism easy to follow. But why?

Valmont, a wealthy 18th-Century douchebag is bored to tears with ordinary sexual beastliness and wants to get it on with Mme de Tourvelle, a supposedly virtuous hysteric. To turn his ticket she has to give herself to him physically while clinging tighter than ever to the trivial moral pillars that define her own annoying vanities. The dashing jerkwad accomplishes this while playing multidimensional hate-sex chess with the Marquise de Merteuil who wants him to want her but who also wants to win.

Claire Hayner is the strong, severely beautiful Marquise I’d imagined she might be, owning the stage like some evil Disney-inspired dominatrix. It’s a harsh, jarring performance that never seems in synch with John Moore’s blithely detached Valmont

Hayner tapps into Liaisons false-feminist anger and makes a strong case that douchey bros who end badly get what they deserve. Unless, of course they ruin her plans in the process. She’s also an original Mean Girl objectifying and using other women for sport.

Ending Liaisons with some hint that the French Reign of terror is around the corner isn’t unusual, but it almost always feels unearned. Theatre Memphis’ production ends, not with the shadow of the guillotine, but with the sound of a falling blade. Historically it makes sense but for the most part the play unfolds in a bubble, acknowledging dire poverty, but never plunging too deeply into the political rivalries that made the guillotine sing.

The driving modern sound design was intrusive, setting a tone and tempo the actors can’t seem to match. It’s still something they might all aspire to.

When it comes to truly dangerous encounters with men Bug's Tracy Hansom takes home the prize. Greg Boller does his best work yet as Goss, Agnes’ hyper-macho thug husband who doesn’t give a damn about consensual. And the more she falls for Peter and adopts his paranoid vision the more she tears at her skin to get the parasites out.

Gene Elliot’s production is action-packed and his sound design, which consists mostly of Tejano music and helicopters, is managed in such a way that it seems to project the characters disorientation and drugged up paranoia onto the audience.

Bug is overlong and won’t be everybody’s bucket of guts. It’s also one heckuva showcase for character actors who aren’t afraid to get down and dirty. Both Hansom and Atkins spend quite a bit of time naked. While both are attractive people neither have supermodel bodies, adding to the grit, and making a pair of already fearless performances that much more impressive.

Kell Christie takes on the role of R.C., a tough, coke-snorting lesbian who tries to help Agnes, and the always interesting Jim Palmer is superb in his walk on role as Dr. Sweet, a psychiatrist who may or may not confirm all of Peter’s buggy suspicions.

For more on Bug. And Dangerous Liaisons.


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