In the opening scene of Bug Bite, a woman, Liz Sipes (played by Lizabeth Sipes) arrives on stage weighted down with a plethora of shopping bags. She is making her way through a crowd of people and is exasperated with the crowd as well as herself for subjecting herself to this irritation. Someone named Charlie is in tow, and she is exasperated with this person, too. “This is supposed to be bonding time,” she mutters to herself while pushing forward through the crowd. She is trying to exercise patience, even though there is very little to be had.
It takes a few minutes to work out that the person she is supposed to be bonding with is her daughter. We don’t know how old she is but she is old enough to have her own cell phone, which turns out to be very useful when she and Charlie get separated in the crowd. While Liz was taking a phone call, Charlie passed by the Kidrobot store and found it more compelling than following her mother around on the streets.
Watching this initial scene, it is hard not to sympathize with Charlie. We haven’t seen a lot of Liz Sipes at this point, but we have seen enough to know that she is someone who likes – actually more probable, needs – to be in control. We don’t know, but are highly suspicious that this is why she seems so disconnected with her daughter. And we will have the rest of the play to find out.
The phone call that Liz took on the street leads to a doctor’s visit and a diagnosis of Stage 4 breast cancer. The woman who needs to be in control is now seriously out of control. Over the next fifty minutes, we watch her come to grips with this new order. Or rather, non-order.
Bug Bite is a one-woman show, but it is inhabited with a ton of characters and scenes. Ok, not literally a ton, but in addition to Liz, there are at least 15 other characters. That’s a lot of characters and scenes to act out in 50 minutes and Sipes does a great job of acting and making sure the audience knows exactly who she is playing at any time. The characters are diverse, and often very funny (one of the most enjoyable things about the play): her doctors; her other two daughters; her husband; two very different energy healers; a homeless man outside the subway; two shopkeepers in a wig shop, three people in the treatment center; a pot-smoking superintendent…I may have forgotten a few others, but you get the picture. In her quest to rid her body of the cancer, she meets lots and lots of colorful characters.
The play is billed as a “journey to stay alive, understand the choices [she has] made and either accept or change them.” This is a fair description, but actually, the play seems to be more about her relationship with Charlie rather than her relationship with cancer. This is not to diminish her fight against cancer. As she copes with the diagnosis and chemo treatments, we glimpse the fear of someone who may not be living that much longer. (Unfortunately it is just a glimpse as the the play is too short to fully develop her fear of death.) We also see that the cancer is changing her in a good way.
But it is her relationship with Charlie that we see the most and, consequently, are the most invested in. It opens the play, it ends the play, and it occupies several episodes during the play, in between all the doctor and energy healer visits. The good news is that there is real, honest-to-goodness, positive change. By the end of the play, we feel very confident that the opening scene will not be repeated. Mother and daughter have arrived at a much better relationship.
What is most frustrating about the play is the opaqueness about her other relationships, notably her husband and her other two daughters. Was Charlie the most difficult, or was she simply representative? We are given a hint that the relationship with her husband improved for the better. While this makes us feel good, it only makes us wonder what that relationship was like before the diagnosis. Was she as disconnected with him as she was with Charlie? One would hope not, but without any explanation, we are only left to wonder.
To be fair, it would be impossible to develop all those relationships in a 50-minute play. But given that, it would have been more satisfying if they had been explained more fully (even as statement to the audience, which was a technique used for other explanations in the play) rather than dangling them out there without any way to reel them in.
All that said, receiving a diagnosis of Stage 4 breast cancer is a terrifying thing. That Sipes is alive and well to re-tell her story is a good thing. That she has a much better relationship with her daugher is even better. In some ways, it is a shame that it took Stage 4 breast cancer to get her there. But life never follows a straight line. If Liz Sipes can relay that message and allow the rest of us to think about changing our lives for the better without the Stage 4 diagnosis—well then that is a very good thing for everyone.
Bug Bite, a one-woman show written and performed by Lizabeth Sipes and co-directed by Christine Renee Miller and Peter Sprague, played at 59E59 Theaters on July 25 and 26 as part of its East to Edinburgh Festival. The play will also take place from August 17-29 in Edinburgh, Scotland as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festivals.