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But It’s not a Musical: ‘Bug’ leads Theatre Southwest’s trend toward productions with a gay appeal.

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Gone buggy: as “Peter,” Houston actor Lance Marshall portrays a Gulf War veteran’s descent into madness in Theatre Southwest’s production of Bug by Tracy Letts.

But It’s Not a Musical:

‘Bug’ leads Theatre Southwest’s trend toward productions with a gay appeal.

by Donalevan Maines • Cast photos by Ananka Kohnitz

When Lance Marshall was on the cover of OutSmart last November with partner James Oxford and foster dog Charlie, he was helping find homes for abandoned pets. This month, Marshall’s claim to fame is taking on the challenging role of Peter, a paranoid schizophrenic, in Tracy Letts’ Bug at Theatre Southwest.

Helping him segue from man’s best friend to creepy crawlers is director Ananka Kohnitz. Marshall has been delighted with her “boot camp” style of getting actors to delve beneath the surface of their characters. “It’s grueling! It’s very intense!” he says.

“Like being in the military,” adds Michelle Harper, an African-American who plays a lesbian whose rambunctious partner gets in barroom brawls.

Like an onion: Michelle Harper says that dissecting “R.C.’s” many layers is key to playing the role of a protective lesbian in Theatre Southwest’s production of Bug.

The setting is a fleabag motel room on the outskirts of Oklahoma City. “Stepping into her lifestyle is a challenge to me because she’s an odd person out, both inside and out,” explains Harper. “She doesn’t look like everybody else. She doesn’t feel like everybody else. So part of peeling away the layers of the character is asking myself why is R.C. still in Oklahoma.

“I create a lot of beautiful things in her back-story, as far as what’s keeping her here. Mainly, it is her protector quality, and that is what makes her drawn to women, too, in a sexual way.”

R.C. also exhibits that “protector quality” in her relationship with Peter’s girlfriend, Agnes, portrayed by Katrina Ellsworth, who played multiple roles in Unhinged Productions’ The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told while Marshall was appearing in another Paul Rudnick comedy, Theatre New West’s The New Century.

Kohnitz saw both shows. Despite the polar-opposite tones of Rudnick’s gay romps and Letts’ suspense-filled drama, she invited Ellsworth and Marshall to audition for the Houston premiere of Bug at Theatre Southwest. Kohnitz says the theater, at 8944 Clarkcrest St. near the intersection of Fondren and Richmond, is a best-kept secret in Houston’s LGBT community.

“Within the gay community, it’s undiscovered,” she says, hoping that Bug will attract a diverse crowd and persuade more theatergoers to check out its edgy productions, which have ranged from Veronica’s Room to The Beauty Queen of Leenane. “I have worked here a lot for 10 years,” she explains. “This is what I call my home base, my little niche. I love it.” She adds that Theatre Southwest “is trying to branch out to the gay community.” For its 54th season in 2011, the theater is slotting Hugh Whitmore’s Breaking the Code, about British mathematician Alan Turing, a key player in cracking the German Enigma Code during World War II. The 1986 play thematically links Turing’s cryptographic activities with his attempts to grapple with his homosexuality.

During five weeks of rehearsal, the actors in Bug grappled with the mystery of whether Agnes’ seedy motel room is actually infested with bugs or if all the scratching comes from Peter’s schizophrenic delusions. Or could it be what the characters are smoking . . . crack . . . that’s causing all the drama?

Marshall explains, “Peter has been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, and he’s gone AWOL from a military hospital, so he’s not stable. In his mind, he does have bugs, so I have to enter that world and make it as believable as possible.”

A Gulf War veteran, Peter claims he’s the victim of a secret government experiment on soldiers. Sure enough, a “Doctor Sweet,” played by John Stevens, arrives to retrieve him, while Agnes’ violent husband Goss, played by Jeff Kent, gets out of prison and wants Peter gone so he and Agnes can pick up where they left off. Just because Peter is paranoid doesn’t mean everybody’s not out to get him. “We are purposely doing things to totally confuse the audience, so that when people leave the theater, they will argue,” says Kohnitz. “Nobody is going to have the same opinion when it’s over. It will be total confusion.”

In 2004, Bug won the Lucille Lortell Award for the year’s best off-Broadway play, as well as outstanding director, lighting, and scenic design. Its cast and design team (set, lights, sound, costumes, props) won Obie awards. In 2006, Lionsgate released a film version of Bug directed by William Friedkin and starring Ashley Judd as Agnes, Harry Connick Jr. as Goss, and Oscar nominee Michael Shannon as Peter. Friedkin, who also directed The French Connection and The Exorcist, described Bug as “the most intense piece of work I’ve ever done.”

Theatre Southwest is advertising it as “not for the faint-hearted.”

Tracy Letts won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award, and umpteen other honors for August: Osage County, his three-act, 13-character play about a dysfunctional family in Oklahoma. His play Man from Nebraska, about an Everyman who wakes up one night realizing he no longer believes in God, was presented April 21–May 16 at Stages.
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Bug
When: opened May 28 and continues at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays through June 19, with a 3 p.m. matinee on Sunday, June 6.
Where: Theatre Southwest, 8944 Clarkcrest.
Wherewithal: For reservations, e-mail [email protected] or call 713/661-9505. For more info: theatresouthwest.org.

Donalevan Maines is the author of God, Murder & Apple Pie, a play that Ananka Kohnitz directed at Theatre Southwest. He also writes about the Tony Awards in this issue of OutSmart magazine.

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Don Maines

Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.

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