When I heard one of our local metro Detroit area theaters was doing “Bug,” I had no question I must go see it. How often do you hear of live theater groups doing horror? I don’t know the answer to this, but the idea intrigues me even if the play didn’t meet my expectations. It’s got me thinking about the particular limitations of live performance, of writing scenes for moving, speaking bodies without the framework of narration or description, and how/when/if I will attempt this. But let’s get back to the play.
Before you read this, bear in mind what follows is fraught with spoilers.
“Bug” was a play before it was a film. Now that I’ve seen Royal Oak’s Stagecrafters performing it, I’d love to see what a company with more daring special effects would do. Most of the horror is in the relationships between characters, and in the growing paranoia and intimate delusions they build together. It’s good writing. The other level of horror written into the script is straight up body horror, and I was disappointed by the lack of physicality in this performance. Maybe I should come right out and say there wasn’t enough gore for me. I didn’t get itchy while watching it. I didn’t cringe or feel uncomfortable about the scab-picking or tooth-pulling, and no one really appeared to dig into their prosthetic flesh with a pen knife and pull out an imaginary bug. The prosthetics seemed to be there, but every time I thought an actor was ready to get good and nasty they held back.
I loved that the play was in a tiny theater and we were maybe ten feet away from the action. That’s my favorite way to experience live theater. Maybe it’s a holdover from too much time in the mosh pit. I noticed some of the other audience members jumped at the least implication of bodily harm, and regarding fake violence I’m admittedly jaded, but what I’m asking for in the performance is credibility. When the doctor was murdered, he went down way too easy. Two jabs with a Bowie knife in the back will take a long time to make a grown man bleed out.
This is a complaint I have with many films and TV shows, of course. Unless you’re a superhero, you don’t get a head shot more than once in a blue moon. If you clobber someone on the head, they may be injured but they will rarely die instantaneously. People, as Tom Stoppard wrote, have an almost involuntary desire to live. Zombies do, too, and my patience has worn thin with all the natural born sharp shooters on “The Walking Dead.” I mean really. Depending on the weapon , the assailant’s training and the placement of the injury, dropping some sorry mofo like a fly just isn’t that easy. Your twelve year old son is not likely to do it on the first or twentieth try.
Also, you’re going to have to push me pretty hard to get me hating on bugs. This play didn’t push. Bugs in general are good stewards of our earth. Without them we would suffocate in our own filth. Bugs carry off and consume tons of biomass that we have no way to dispose of. They feed birds with their little bug bodies. They often fly and look pretty, and if you study their life cycles you learn about the mysteries of metamorphosis. In this play, the word “bug” functions on multiple levels–not only as insect, but as anxiety, as listening device, as spy, as voluntary and involuntary traitor, as intimacy exploding from the friction of familiarity. All these higher levels allow distance. They engage your analytic brain. They don’t make your skin crawl.
Without the visceral foundation of the creepy-crawly bug, the play loses some of its impact. I still liked it, although I felt a bit cheated. Hats off to the two main actors for going all the way with the mad erotic delusion at the end. They almost danced, in a manic, bacchanalian kind of way.
Maybe “Bug: The Ballet” will be next. Is that a thing, horror ballet?