Monday, May 25, 2015

"Hookman"


Hookman
Lauren Yee
In Association with Z Space

The scene opens innocently enough.  Two seventeen-year-old girls, home in California for a holiday break from their respective colleges, banter back and forth driving toward the audience in a skeleton frame of a car as they head to a late-night movie.  Their fast-paced, Twitter-like discourse where neither is often listening that much to the other is hilarious for us as eavesdroppers.  Topics come out of the blue with little rhyme or reason, including some bizarre story one of their mother’s has told her about a one-handed murderer (“Hookman”) at the same time Mom is warning her precious daughter to “be safe” at school.  While both laugh and dismiss the ridiculous tale, there is an uneasiness introduced for them and for us.  Preceded by some strange metallic sounds, all of a sudden events in fact turn bad for the two; and a tragedy strikes in Encore Theatre Company’s (in association with Z Space) Hookman by Lauren Yee that will play out time and again in the remaining hour or so of this world premiere.

Back at her school at UConn, Lexi attempts to rejoin her freshman year and community as if nothing has really happened on that fateful night.  Conversations with roommate, acquaintances, a might-be boyfriend, and dorm R.A. start with the usual college self-centeredness on both parts of the dialogue; and again we in the audience are amused by their attempts to converse thwarted by headphones in ears, crazy ring-toned cell phones, and more interest in eating snacks than in really listening to each other.  But increasingly, each of these interactions between the clearly distraught Lexi and those she meets begins to go places that are at first strange and increasingly creepy and terrifying.  For Lexi and for us, it becomes difficult to discern what is really happening and what is being imagined.  And for her and us, encounters turn into B-rated, slasher-movie scenes where surprises, screams, and blood star.

As Lexi, the young Taylor Jones brings a fresh and engaging approach to her troubled character.  She shows an uncanny ability of quickly alternating between denial of anything being wrong and being paralyzed with fear something huge is wrong, between self-absorption and desperate need for human contact, and between appearing totally normal and clearly being deeply disturbed.  We enter her psyche and shudder with her at the confusion and horror she faces in trying to sort out what happened that night on the dark road with her friend Jess.  Sarah Matthes as that friend Jess bounces all over the rider’s seat in the opening scene car full of exuberance, fun-spirit, and life-is-good.  We watch her quick shudder that something bad may be about to happen; and with Lexi, we remember those moments leading to her demise as they play out again and again before us and in Lexi’s troubled memory.  Each time, Ms. Matthes adds through Lexi’s memory new details, more nuanced looks of horror at her impending doom, and increased clues as to what really happened and why. 

The two central characters are well supported by a cast of teens who each operate in some mixture of reality and Lexi’s disturbed imagination.  Katherine Chin is the cool, detached roommate Yoonji who really wants to help Lexi if that can be done in a couple of minutes before she scampers off to meet other (mostly male) pals.  Ally Roper is the hilarious Chloe whose mile-a-minute, one-sided conversations with Lexi are coupled with jumping-jack-like movements right out of a high impact aerobics class.  Jessica Lynn Carroll, who appears late in the play as a high school door monitor, provides a creepy look at just where Lexi’s mind is taking her.  And finally, Devin O’Brien steps effectively into all the male roles, including the gruesome and reappearing Hookman himself.

Becca Wolff directs this fast-moving, entirely engaging play with seamless ease and hardly a moment’s pause, even between the changes of the cleverly constructed and highly effective scenes of James Faerron.  Supported by realistic sound (Drew Yerys) and just the right lighting touches (Joshua McDermott), everything comes together for an outstanding effect.

In the guise of a teenage slasher comedy, Lauren Yee raises a number of serious questions that stay with audience members long after the fake blood has all been cleared from stage and actors.  What effects does trauma and deep loss really have on us?  How can we discern what is reality versus what appears in our mind’s eye to be very real?  But not leaving us just in this primary realm of exploration, Ms. Yee ventures into other difficult subjects like technology’s increasing effects on meaningful human interaction, the self-centeredness of the millennial generation, and even date rape.  And she broaches these difficult topics while ensuring we are both laughing at this array of late-teens and cringing at the increasing blood and gore.

Like in her recently premiered In a Word (presented by San FranciscoPlayhouse’s Sandbox series and reviewed earlier by TheatreEddys), Ms. Yee leaves it very unclear what is actual and what is imagined in our central protagonist’s mind as she invites us to explore the journey of coming to grips with life’s inevitable tragedies.  Her ability to employ unusual devices to hit her audience in the gut with serious, thought-provoking themes is uncanny and says that she is a young playwright whom we all should follow and eagerly await her next opening.

Rating: 5 E’s

Hookman by Lauren Yee continues through May 30, 2015 at Z Below, 450 Florida Street, San Francisco.  Hookman is a world premiere of Encore Theatre Company in association with Z Space.

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