Crazy Over You

The local theater community is infested with conspiracy theories. But the skullduggery and arcane scheming is — mostly — confined to the stage.

Players by the Sea is currently staging Tracy Lett’s dark drama “Bug,” which details the weirdly poignant relationship that develops between two fear-crossed lovers. The two-act drama originally premiered at London’s Gate Theatre in 1996, eventually finding favor in Chicago, Washington, D.C. and New York City, in a successful Off-Broadway production, as well as in Australia. The stark story has gone on to win awards including the Lucille Lortel, Drama Desk and Obie. Though some theater crowds were wary of the play’s morbid content and onstage violence, a film version of “Bug,” directed by William Friedkin, appeared in 2006 starring Ashley Judd, Harry Connick Jr. and Michael Shannon (who originally starred as Peter in the 2004 Barrow Street Theatre version staged in Manhattan).

The Players by the Sea production is directed by Joshua Kreis McTiernan and sticks to Letts’ original vision of two people pulled together by a shadow-driven magnetism. “ ’Bug’ is a very intense show with strong language and adult themes that may not have broad appeal,” warns PBTS executive director Joe Schwarz, “yet it delves into the lives of very troubled people.”

In “Bug,” lonely cocktail waitress Agnes Goss (Kasi Walters) is locked in an abusive relationship with her husband, Jerry (Juan Carlos Unzueta). One evening, her friend R.C. (Evelyn Peralta) drops by and introduces Agnes to Peter (Johnathan Ross), a Gulf War veteran who may or may not be AWOL — and perhaps even insane.

“Bug” centers around the social phenomenon of conspiracy theories, a topic which now almost seems like a quaint, ’90s parlor game that preceded the ultimate game-changer for the paranoid set: 9/11. Peter is obsessed with theories about UFOs, the Oklahoma City bombing, cult suicides and, ultimately, secret government experiments on soldiers that led to his belief that he is now plagued by bugs.

“As strange as it seems, it’s a very horrific story, but I kind of view it as a love story,” says director McTiernan. “Bug” pivots on the dangers, real or imagined, that Peter perceives, and Agnes’ willing surrender into his mad realm.

McTiernan, 26, thinks the subject matter is timely. “We are in an age where all we hear about in the news are these stories that are designed to make you afraid,” he observes. He believes that the power of suggestion some media outlets exploit for ratings is the same technique used by Peter to draw his troubled lover into this folie à deux, the classic psychological disorder in which a psychosis is “shared by two.” McTiernan thinks the heightened state of panic that these characters perceive is similar to what the average citizen experiences in our hyper-vigilant society.

“Today, all these newscasters have to do is suggest the possibility of a terrorist, or that some product might be bad for you, and you can believe it 100 percent, and we accept that as fact,” he says.

Lett’s twisted vision is like Shakespeare saturated in fear, a “Romeo and Juliet” played out with the curtains drawn, the windows taped over and the phone checked for wiretaps. “It’s a play intent on manipulating us into the characters’ point of view,” says McTiernan. Johnathan Ross, in his role as Peter, agrees. “People can really fall victim to the wrong information if it’s delivered by the right person.”

Ross helped prepare for his role by watching videos and documentaries about veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, various films that hypothesize government cover-ups, and conferring with a few friends who are ardent conspiracy theorists. At the same time, he says, “I didn’t try to look at him as this dark guy, but rather: Why does he see the world this way?”

Yet after entering the dark world of Peter, the actor gained a different understanding of people living a shadow-world existence. Ultimately, Ross believes Peter is more antihero than bad guy. “Every villain,” he says, “is probably still their own good guy waiting in the wings.”

Dan Brow

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