Review: At Fresno City College, ‘Hookman’ has a hook but misses the line and sinker
By Heather Parish
One of the things I admire about the Fresno City College theater program is that it regularly stages plays that hit the educational theater mission squarely on target. Shows that provide meaty acting opportunities for young people with themes relevant to college-age and twentysomethings are some of the most interesting new plays around. “Hookman,” directed by Summer S. Session, hits that target.
Written by Lauren Yee in 2012 when the playwright was in graduate school and then debuted in 2015, she describes the play as an existential slasher comedy. Lexi (Cecilia Cantu) unexpectedly chooses UConn over UC Davis, where her friend Jess (Audrey Schaffer) enrolls. The tension between them is palpable during an In-and-Out run over Thanksgiving break. A trauma leads to a tragedy. This leads to confusion and isolation for Lexi, who retreats to the East Coast to avoid her feelings. It’s a psychologically damaging situation for anyone to be in, especially an 18-year-old three thousand miles away from home.
The hook (so to speak) is that the Hookman, an urban legend that Lexi’s mother warned her about, begins to manifest in many ways in her life. Blood turns up everywhere. She sees things others don’t. And everyone around her becomes a perpetrator or a victim. Suddenly, her life is a slasher movie. Or at least a graphic novel.
Cantu’s Lexi is at turns sympathetic and unlikeable, but that’s to be expected of a character with no real sense of who they are yet. As her friend Jess, Schaffer delivers strong scene work alongside Cantu. The cast of college-age characters surrounding Lexi capture snapshots illustrating how connecting with others is complex, opening the door for predatory threats in their lives.
While the characters drawn may provide us with an examination of student isolation, they cannot alone deliver on the promised horror. The FCC production team does a fine job with the staging, sets, and projection work. Still, the lighting, horror effects, and direction lack the oomph to make the comedy stick or the horror land.
The script has potential with plenty of gallows humor and dark comedy intended to bump up against outlandish violence. The black comedy failed to deliver what could have been some cutting moments if delivered more sharply. Additionally, the production is missing the shadowy atmosphere of horror created through movement work, tricks of light, and pacing. Overall, many horror scenes were slow and too blatantly lit to be a shock. The one scene that truly delivered the violent horror was mostly horrifying because it was so clearly lit and took so long that the audience eventually had to look away and wish it would just end.
At the end of the 90-minute performance, I didn’t feel the purging of terror I wanted at the end of an existential slasher comedy. I did feel like I could discuss the changing mental health needs of college students, though. Perhaps I was hoping for more Grand Guignol and less after-school special on this one. Either way, “Hookman” is an admirable attempt to do something off the beaten path, and for that, I’m always hooked.
“Hookman” continues Nov. 17 & 18 at 7:30 p.m. and Nov. 18 at 2:30 p.m. at Fresno City College’s Studio Theatre.
Heather Parish is a recovering thespian and cheery misanthrope who still believes that theater is one of the best means of living an examined life. @heatherdparish on Instagram.