Playwright: Lauren Yee. At: Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn. Tickets: 773-649-3186; SteepTheatre.com; $25-$35. Runs through: May 27
Playwright Lauren Yee unquestionably creates energetic and imaginative fantasy theater.
With two plays currently onstage in Chicago ( Goodman Theatre's King of the Yees is the other ), it's clear that she's a master of meta-theatrical devices and show biz razzle-dazzle. Folks tired of mainstream realistic drama will find refreshment in Yee's exuberant plays. That she has something to say is an even better recommendation, although it oddly is a stumbling block in Hookman.
The problem is that Yee bills Hookman as "an existential slasher comedy," derived from the urban legend of a hook-handed serial killer who pursues couples in Lovers Lane, or pops up in the backseat of a car. The idea is perfect for a creepy theatrical take-off on slasher movies, which is precisely what Steep Theatre and director Vanessa Stalling deliver in this well-crafted production.
However, the flippant, self-referencing style is in contrast toeven in conflict withthe play's deeply serious actual story about guilt and grief. It's as if Yeestill in her 20s when she wrote Hookman and only 32 nowfelt she could not write a serious play about such a serious subject. The result is a possible disconnect between what an audience expects the play to be ( especially those who've seen King of the Yees ) and what it actually is.
Lexi ( oh-so-vulnerable Kiayla Ryann ), 17, is a college freshman. On spring break she gets together with gal pal Jess ( the versatile Karen Isabel Rodriguez ), who is killed in a car accident with Lexi at the wheel when a drunk driver hits them. The 85-minute play returns Lexi to school, where she deals with vapidly weird dorm mates, fallout from a sexual encounter that may have been rape and her mother constantly calling her. Also, she repeatedly replays the crash and her final conversation with Jess, including a mocking discussion of Hookman. In Lexi's fevered state, all people and events distort into deceptive and threatening encounters, dripping with menstrual blood, haunted by Hookman and punctuated by the shock visual and aural effects of horror films. At the play's end, Lexi recalls an important detail of the accident that she's repressed. It serves as an exclamation point to all that's gone before, and it's anything but comedic.
The cast is first-rate, with fine, drily hilarious support from Aja Wiltshire and Sasha Smith as the self-absorbed dorm mates and James Doherty as assorted males, but the tech/design team is the star: Arnel Sancianco ( scenic ), Pete Dully ( lighting ), Mieka van der Ploeg ( costumes ), Eleanor Kahn ( props ), Mark Comiskey ( projections/video ) and Jon Beal ( violence/gore ). Jeffrey Levin's award-worthy sound design and original music ascend the heights of shock and shlock, reminding us how important aural elements can be in theater.