I didn’t know what to expect going into “Hookman”- the only thing I knew to expect in great abundance was the blood. What I didn’t realize was that there were so many similarities between Hookman and my upcoming thesis, “The Cracking Hour” written by Jahna Ferron-Smith. Both plays are written by young women playwrights and both feature the life of an “average” woman in her twenties. I also found the tones of these plays to be rather similar, dealing with clichéd themes about women with a rather dry sense of humor. Because of this, it was really informative to see what worked and what I felt was still a work in process in this Company One production.
Hookman takes place in a small theatre at the Calderwood that I didn’t even know existed… upstairs right next to the entrances to the balcony for the main stage. The space is set up to seat maybe 30 people, with “splash zone” seats in the front where the audience is provided with raincoats just in case you get sprinkled with… blood. The set involves the front half of a car, which rotates into the background when the action takes place on the other half of the set, which is Lexi’s dorm room. Most of the play takes place in these two locations with transitions occurring in the ambiguous empty space between the set and the audience. The entire set is wallpapered with plastic sheeting that hints at splattering yet to come. For the most part I found the set to be an effective vessel for this story, although something I was missing was a cohesive mood or point of view- I logically understood the set choices, but I think it was sort of right on the verge of being either completely straight-forward and realistic with the dorm room and the car, or embracing the horror/slasher feel of the play with the plastic sheeting and the gaping whole through which the car emerges. I just couldn’t quite put my finger on the rules of the world of this play.
The aspect of Hookman that I appreciate most is the tough, and important topics it tackles, and the humor it brings to these issues. A central theme of the play is female sexuality, which is a topic of huge importance right now; on a smaller scale here at BU with the men’s hockey team sexual assault investigation, and on a national scale with contraception and abortion rights being debated in all levels of politics. The issues that are grappled with on-stage in “Hookman” with seemingly low stakes (Is this shirt slutty? Well, was she asking for it?) reflect the way many people from the far right are currently approaching women’s rights. A comment from Foster Friess really sums it up nicely, “Back in my days they used Bayer aspirin for contraceptives. The gals put it between their knees and it wasn’t costly.” “Slut-shaming” has resurfaced as something that is socially acceptable for some conservative politicians and advocates, and that’s really scary. “Hookman” tackles these issues through comedy, although a lot of the time I was laughing with sort of a sick feeling in my stomach, that feeling compounded by the fact that the Hookman was probably lurking somewhere nearby. The repetitive nature of the scenes gave us insight into how Lexi, the protagonist, might be dealing with the recent death of her friend and a sexual encounter with a boy from out of town that she’s just now realizing might have been considered date rape. Key scenes are repeated over and over, each time morphing a little, just as we can imagine Lexi might replay these conversations in her mind, becoming a little more distorted with every repetition, and the Hookman is always somewhere at the forefront of the audience’s (and probably Lexi’s) mind.
Another interesting topic wrestled with in “Hookman” is the recent explosion of social media, and the users presumed “right” to information about the other people they interact with online. I found the story that Lauren Yee shared in her interview with Ilana to be particularly relatable. Lauren talked about how part of her inspiration for Hookman grew from an experience where she learned that an acquaintance from high school had passed away via Facebook. When she couldn’t find more information, Lauren felt indignant because she thought she had a right to know details about how this person had died. It disturbed her to recognize this impulse in herself. Lexi announces several times that she is going to “quit” Facebook. Our society has become one in which it’s really hard not to be connected. Either you are a user of social media or you aren’t, but either choice says something about you as a person. I think this play comments on our dependency on social media, and asks us to question our relationship to it.
Overall, I appreciate the uncomfortable themes dealt with in Hookman, and the fresh approach Lauren Yee brings to them. I think my main criticism of the production is similar to my criticism of the set- I didn’t feel like I totally understood the rules of this world. The play vacillates between complete “realism” to stylized, clearly choreographed moments, like the bloody fights that occur between the Hookman and Lexi with planned moments for both characters to catch their breath, and a generally surreal tone. I understood conceptually the idea of challenging theatrical norms, but sometimes instead of illuminating the text, I felt that the choices distracted me from the action of the play. A lot of cool ideas were flirted with, but I think the production could have benefitted from fully committing to a few ideas, as opposed to sort of half realizing several realities. For example, an expectation is set up with the “Splash Zone” and the plastic-covered walls that there will be a lot of blood, but the actual amount of blood used in the production really wasn’t proportionate to the hype. At least in the production I saw, the “Splash Zone” wasn’t ever in danger. I think we’re so desensitized to violence as a culture, that the amount of blood and the style of violence used in this production wasn’t enough to shock or provoke as I believe was the intention. I think taking that choice to an extreme- soaking the stage with blood, or else using a less literal, more theatrical device would have made the world of the play more clear to me. Instead, Hookman hovered somewhere in the middle. Because of the blurred lines between the real and the surreal, I don’t think I ever understood what “actually happened” in the play and what was meant to be a fiction of Lexi’s imagination. It’s possible that the audience is meant to leave the show not knowing, but I had this feeling that I was supposed to understand more than I did. In general, I think a lot of my issues with the Hookman were problems that come with the first production of any new play. Ilana even says in the program, “Even now, as you sit here in the theatre, the play is not finished. Audiences in first productions show playwrights what they’ve made, and provide the platform for new insights.” This play is in process, and things are still evolving. I understand that and take it into consideration in my critique. Just as we must consider the world of the play, we must also consider where a play is in its evolution.
In General, I think the story of a twenty-something year old woman is an important one to be shared at this time, not only with the world of theatre, but also with our nation as a whole. Now’s a time that our rights as females are being questioned, and life-changing decisions about our reproductive rights are being decided by predominantly middle-aged male politicians. I don’t know if it was Lauren Yee’s intent when she wrote this play, but I think it’s important to share stories about real, complicated women and remind the nation that we need be neither virgins nor whores. I appreciate Hookman for this reason, and for its ambition and sense of humor.