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The Vermin on the Mount

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"If the play works right, by the time we get to the second act, people are going to be scratching themselves — I want to send them squirming. Audiences need to squirm a bit around here," says Joe Hammond, director of the itchy-scratchy, thoroughly unnerving "Bug" at Las Vegas Little Theatre.

Enticing, no? Other pleasures?

"We’re preparing the actor with stage blood, so he comes up dripping like ‘Saw XXII.’ He comes out of the bathroom carving on himself looking for bugs and a murder is committed onstage."

What else?

"I’ve gone down to the wonderful world of crack addicts and picked up crack pipes."

Blood, bugs, drugs … where’s the nudity? "I took it out," Hammond says of a bare-the-bod scene that would’ve transformed the Fischer Black Box’s comfortable theater intimacy into uncomfortable strip-club intimacy.

"I’ve got the audience within 4 or 5 feet (of the actors) and the nudity would appear in the very last moment of the play, so the whole point of the play would be lost when people go, ‘Oooh, look at that pair!’ "

This isn’t "Bye Bye Birdie." Unless Birdie is code for sanity.

Adapted as a 2006 film by "Exorcist" auteur William Friedkin that starred Ashley Judd and Harry Connick Jr., playwright Tracy Lett’s "Bug" is a big bowl of paranoia, blood, cockroaches, physical abuse, drug addiction, sexual innuendo, a sprinkling of comedy — and disturbing hints of the psychosis that might drive rabid conspiracy believers.

"Actors get to do things they don’t normally get to do onstage," Hammond says. "And in the middle of everything is massive condemnation of government propagating, so it’s got all the things that make me happy."

Set in a sleazy Oklahoma motel room, "Bug" concerns a lonely honky-tonk waitress hiding from her violent ex-con/ex-husband — who’s harassing her with prank calls and returns for another beatdown — while she’s still haunted by the kidnapping of her child from a supermarket a decade earlier.

She smokes crack with her lesbian biker pal who introduces her to a drifter and (possible) AWOL Gulf War vet. As they grow closer, his dark side emerges as he rants about Iraq, UFOs, the Oklahoma City bombing and secret government experiments on patients, including himself, at a veterans hospital.

As paranoia climbs, he discovers a bug in the bed, sure there’s a spreading infestation in this trashy, claustrophobic dump, persuading the waitress the disgusting insects are burrowing into their skin, triggering scratching … panic … festering sores and welts … brutal, bloody tearing and carving into their bodies.

Actual roaches? Drug-fueled hallucinations? Plunge into madness from horrific experiments, real or imagined?

What’s that expression? You’re not paranoid if they’re really after you?

"You can say that guy was being tortured by the government and it would be totally plausible," says T.J. Larsen, who portrays the abusive ex.

"Or you could say the guy’s a nutjob and we shouldn’t take these conspiracy theories seriously. We don’t come down on one side or the other. The best thing you can have is people talking about what they just saw when they leave a play."

Attending? Park the kids with the sitter. In movie-rating terms: This one’s a hard R — with a caveat. There is no actual drug use — law enforcement folks, please pocket those warrants — or smoking.

"The room has bad ventilation and there aren’t enough exhaust fans," Hammond says. "I don’t want people thinking, ‘What the hell am I breathing?’ "

Real/unreal roaches? Possibly scurrying into limbs and orifices? Maybe munching on skin? Sound effects. By the buggy, druggy, bloody climax, Hammond promises audiences "a big rock ‘n’ roll ending they’ll never forget. The last 15 minutes is a real rough ride."

"Bug" is true-and-a-half to the mission of LVLT’s Black Box. "My job is to help expand audiences that might have more attraction to seeing this type of angst play," Hammond says. "We give more of the younger people more of that, so we can convince them to see the other stuff in the big (mainstage) theater."

Transform them into theater converts?

Lucky little buggers.

Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at sbornfeld@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0256.

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