For the second time this year, playwright Lauren Yee’s work comes to Long Beach. First was the "Hatmaker’s Wife" at the Long Beach Playhouse and now "Hookman" at CalRep.
This work by the author is a darker shade, in fact a very dark shade of crimson. There is blood, on more than one occasion, effectively used and not in the extreme. Which is good — or bad — depending on how you look at it.
“Hookman” is based on the urban legend of a man, with a hook for a hand, lurking in the backseat of a car trying to kill the young female driver. He is repeatedly scared by the high beams of the car behind. The driver is only aware of the car behind her, following her every move and constantly flashing its high beams. She rushes home and is confronted by the driver of the car following her, about the hookman in her backseat that his high beams saved her from.
In Yee’s brand of magical realism, slasher spoof, we find our desire for Grand Guignol subverted. The story on the surface is a send up of films like "Halloween." It is, in reality, an exploration of far deeper topics. The material seems to keep its tongue firmly in its cheek. Or is it just this production?
I think the flippant dialogue and disconnection of the characters on stage are manifestations of the protagonist's state of mind, but here is where Yee’s writing again seems to rely on a very specific understanding of her intentions.
The performances here were solid, and some like our damsel in distress Lexi played by the effervescent Madecyn Penn, moved us through this dreamscape with skill. Likewise, her possible best friend Jess played by Aubree Bibbs was so grounded in her scenes with Penn that the sense of reality was palpable.
These illusions of reality followed immediately by the nonsense that is the hookman create the chiaroscuro that makes the piece work. If the piece works. I also enjoyed Chloe brought to life by the frenetically energetic Noelle Howe. Her giddy laughter and relentlessly chipper pragmatism were just delightful.
Here is where I’m confused. When speaking or writing about this experience, I find it sounds satisfying. The direction by Lisa Sanaye Dring was clearly responsible for connecting the actors in the intentionally disconnected way Yee writes them. The distracted, phone obsessed culture that we relate to millennials was perfectly spoofed... or was it to be explored? It was difficult to follow dialogue of this kind, in connection to the plot device of a serial killer on the loose, and not find it funny. Was that supposed to be funny or poignant?
It probably didn’t help that it reminded me of a 2004 Japanese anime television series called “Paranoia Agent” by director Satoshi Kon about a young serial assailant called Lil' Slugger. The plot of “Paranoia Agent” is similar in that characters pivot into the center of Lil’ Slugger's attention we find out more about their secrets just as we do in “Hookman.” However, the anime seems to be able to shift between tones in a satisfying way that “Hookman” finds difficult to emulate.
Every time “Hookman” moved towards its author’s agenda, I saw her raise her hook. It was as if Yee was turning on the headlights every time she tried to sneak up on me. It was a Frankenstein kit of parts — all sorts of issues and styles stitched together for the intended effect.
What was the effect? When I walk into a theatre, I am a willing victim. I am there for it. I want to be thrilled or scared or devastated. Metaphorically speaking, come and get me! Just don’t let me see you coming; that ruins all the fun.
Hookman continues through Oct. 10 with the California Repertory Company. General admission tickets are $23, tickets for students are $18, and for military and seniors (55 and older) are $20. Go to www.calrep.org.
The Studio Theatre is inside the Theatre Arts Building on the CSULB South Campus, accessible via Seventh Street and West Campus Drive.