In the director’s chair with: Jon Tracy

The cast and crew of SF Playhouse’s Bug. Director Jon Tracy is on the right in the hat.

Ask Jon Tracy what’s bugging him these days, and the answer is easy: Bug.

Tracy is directing the Bay Area premiere of the play, by recent Pulitzer Prize-winner Tracy Letts (August: Osage County) for SF Playhouse. The production begins previews May 7, opens May 10 and continues through June 14 at the downtown San Francisco theater.

Famously creepy and skin-crawly, Bug is a tale of paranoia – a man and a woman in a grimy, slimy hotel room suffer delusions of a bug infestation brought about by a nefarious government conspiracy…or mental illness…or actual bugs. A movie was made of the play in 2006 directed by William Friedkin (The Exorcist) and starring Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon, the star of the original Chicago production of the play. The movie, which some hailed and others reviled, did not impress Tracy, who was a fan of the play.

“Seeing that movie only made me want to direct the play more,” he says. “When you see a version of something you love that you don’t care for, that didn’t grab the story correctly, you want to fix it.”

What appeals to Tracy about the play is that there’s more to it than just the gore and horror it’s famous for.

“It’s an unbelievably wonderful look at a love story,” Tracy says.

The lovers in Tracy’s production are Gabe Marin as Peter, the AWOL Gulf War veteran who thinks he may have been subjected to experiments by the military, and Susi Damilano as Agnes, a cocktail waitress with a propensity for partying.

“What we’re finding in rehearsals is that Letts has a distinctive rhythm and sensibility,” Tracy says. “We’re working with two different rhythms in a farce staging that includes some really interesting rules to live by. There is a wit that needs to come out of it. There’s so much subtext. In most contemporary plays we don’t really say anything we mean, but what we mean is down there somewhere. Letts is an unbelievable wordsmith. He’s not afraid to punch you twice before you realize you got punched the first time. The play is beyond clever. The emotional journey is mathematically precise and goes well beyond the shock value he has become known for.”

Where the movie went wrong, in Tracy’s opinion, was in missing the natural comedy of the piece and messing up the ending.

“Friedkin misstated the end,” Tracy says. “We weren’t along for the ride. It was all screaming people, spinning camera and aluminum foil covering everything. Any amount of belief was blown out and it became silly. The central relationship wasn’t the love story I’ve come to see as so important to the play.”

SF Playhouse is just about the perfect space for a play like Bug that trades on paranoia and claustrophobia. Set designer Bill English (also SF Playhouse’s artistic director) has created a seedy motel set that Tracy says is “a character in and of itself.” The audience, for good or ill, is going to feel trapped in that hotel room and the paranoia that’s building around something that may or may not actually be happening.

That’s exactly how Tracy likes it.

“It’s time for theater to get back to holding the audience accountable,” he says. “That happens less in our modern theaters. We like to tell them what to do and what to think. Here, let me turn my imagination off. That’s counterproductive to why we started doing this in the first place.”

Why Tracy, a Vallejo native who now lives in Oakland, started doing this theater thing was simple: he thought it would be a cool way to meet girls. These days, though, he has a different philosophy.

“My thought is that we live today in an unbelievably beautiful, giving world that masquerades as a horrible, treacherous place,” he says. “If you’re looking for the good in it, it’s not going to appear. It’s about realigning ourselves so we can see what’s been there the entire time, and embrace what’s been there the entire time. I have to believe that theater is that bridge. For me, that’s what I believe we do. We call ourselves artists, but that’s the worst possible title for us. Instead, we need to look at the fact that we are like every other person pursuing their craft for the betterment of the community. By that definition, the plumber or the accountant is an artist. The problem is, that in the trappings of life – the mortgage, three kids and so on – we lose our art. That’s why we commune in the theater or go to a museum – to find a little of ourselves again and maybe to see that everything is actually here to help.”

Plucked out of the Solano College theater program by George Maguire who suggested directing over acting, Tracy says he has been lucky to have great people shepherd him along. Joy Carlin (right, with Tracy) and the Carlin family have been “incredible influences,” and now he says he has been embraced by co-founders English and Damilano at SF Playhouse.

“I’m a huge, huge, unbelievably huge believer in the people I work with,” Tracy says. “I know I will always learn more than I dish out. I know I’m lucky to be in the room.”

So far this year, Tracy’s directorial plate has been full of darkness – Macbeth, The Diviners and Bug – and now it’s time to lighten up. His next project, which will open Friday, June 13, in the Willows Theatre Company’s Martinez theater, is Evil Dead: The Musical.

“I listened to the music and thought it was raunchy and silly and fun,” Tracy says. “I grew up with the Sam Raimi films and just couldn’t say no to this one.”

SF Playhouse’s Bug runs from May 7 through June 14. Tickets are $38. Call 415-677-9596 or visit for information.

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