Oakland director was itching to stage 'Bug'

By Guy D’Astolfo

YOUNGSTOWN — The Oakland Center for the Arts’ first offering of the new year is “Bug,” a psychological thriller about conspiracy theory and paranoia.

But the play’s director could be forgiven if he believed — even for just a moment — that there was a conspiracy against him.

Two weeks before opening night, Robert Dennick Joki came to the conclusion that the set needed to be replaced.

“The first set that went up was not functional,” said the veteran director. “It needs to look like a seedy motel room and it just didn’t. I come from the school of ‘make it work,’ and I tried to make it work, but it was really hindering the rehearsal process. So my producers and I decided to scrap the first design and start from scratch.”

The Oakland board sent out an e-mail blast soliciting volunteers for a marathon set tear-down/rebuild and got a good response.

“Youngstown State University students, Kent State students, theater patrons and even members of Top Hat Productions all showed up to lend a hand,” said Joki. The work took a full 12 hours.

So how did the replacement set turn out? “Awful ... which is exactly what I wanted,” said Joki.

Although he now had the set he wanted, Joki’s troubles weren’t over. A few days later, one of his actors had to withdraw due to illness.

“Anyone who has worked in community theater knows that situations like this come up from time to time, and it can be devastating,” said Joki. “In the past, I’ve ended up having to fill in by stepping into the role myself, which is something I hate doing. I think that, nine times out of 10, when a director casts himself in a show, the production suffers in some way. I lucked out this time because one of the people who helped build the set a few days prior was familiar with the play and interested in the part. I was actually able to start blocking the new actor into the show within two hours of the other actor bowing out.”

“Bug” was written in 2004 by Tracy Letts, who won the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for his 2007 drama “August: Osage County.” An off-Broadway hit, it was turned into a feature film in 2007 starring Ashley Judd and Harry Connick Jr.

“I’ve wanted to do this show for a couple of years now,” said Joki. “It focuses on two lonely people shut away in a trashy motel room, and their descent into madness. Audiences should expect to walk away from the show ... itching.”

The Oakland production will mark the debut of local actor Ron Aulet, who will lend an air of authenticity to his role. A real-life private in the U.S. Army, Aulet plays a soldier in “Bug.”

“Ron Aulet walked into the Oakland with little to no stage experience and auditioned for one of the hardest roles I’ve ever read,” said Joki. “That right there told me that this kid had guts. Then, I saw on his audition form that he was fresh out of boot camp. I was very impressed. The role I cast him in is that of a U.S. soldier who fought in the Gulf War.”

Aulet will be shipping out to Iraq with his Army unit in July.

The cast also includes Terri Labedz, Ric Panning, Lisa Skerkavich and Jim Canacci.

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