Even Walls Have Ears: Eavesdropping on Redtwist's Bug
Audiences attending Redtwist Theatre's revival of Bug—the first in Chicago since its premiere at Red Orchid in 2001—step off Bryn Mawr Avenue into the storefront playhouse's lobby, then into a hall flanked on one side by an Edward Keinholz-styled facade depicting a motor court in the American Southwest. We proceed through a numbered door to find ourselves in a motel room.
You heard that right. A motel room. Not a cutaway "motel room" replicated in an architecturally-divided auditorium, with seats ranged in tidy rows at one side, but a nearly full-scale single-occupancy transient unit whose corners serve as repositories for the chairs where playgoers will cluster, like literal flies on the wall, for the time it takes for this isolated outpost and its shabby furnishings to be gradually transformed by the tenants into a bunker fortified against unseen terrors.
Director Kimberly Senior recalls first measuring out the play's dimensions and then "squeezing the audience in wherever we could."
"The square footage of a cheap motel room is about two-thirds that of the entire Redtwist performance space," adds scenic designer Jack Magaw, "The size of the bed and the location of an actual bathroom played a role in deciding how we apportioned the space, but once Kimberly and I determined where the actors had to be for each scene, whatever was left was where we put the audience."
This reduces playgoers to the status of ambient debris. At one point, an actor reaches over a seated patron to close the window blinds, and the critic for the Tribune spoke of accidentally stepping on a corpse lying at his feet. Was the idea to give us a—well, bug's-eye view of the action?
Both Magaw and Senior felt that physical proximity would heighten the play's suspense and immediacy, as well as reducing the likelihood of, as Senior explains, "judgment based on distance from the characters and their choices,"
"Whatever being 'in the room' may mean to each individual in terms of intimacy," concurs Magaw, "that's what we wanted. And yes, we set up the perimeter from the first rehearsal on to acclimate the actors to their boundaries."
What made them decide to extend the environment to the motel's exterior, complete with dusty potted plants and a neon-lit roadside sign?
"Initially, we wanted to use the street entrance off Bryn Mawr for the motel fašade," Magaw admits, "but a lot of important action occurs right in the doorway, forcing actors to cross over too long a distance. The outside world—the noise of passing traffic on the highway, for example—is critical to creating the tension within the room's interior, however, so we kept our original plan, but just kept it all closer together."
Something the production didn't anticipate was extending another month to find itself sharing a set with Polly Stenham's That Face. How does Redtwist propose to reconcile Bug's seedy quarters with a comedy set in a well-to-do English home?
That Face director Michael Colucci has his answer ready. "The family in Stenham's play was well-fixed at one time, but their circumstances have changed. The characters have disintegrated emotionally and their environment has become correspondingly distressed. To de-Bug-ify the set, the walls and carpet remain the same, but have attention drawn away from them by means of strategically-placed flourishes—a large rock-and-roll poster, for example."
(Bug continues at Redtwist through July 31, running in repertory with That Face, through August 14.)
Mary Shen Barnidge
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