I started writing about theatre because I wanted to celebrate what was good and discuss how I felt about the productions that I was seeing. I also wanted to help promote local theatre here in Columbus, as I know it is easy to miss out on lots of worthwhile productions because many local theatre companies don’t have the budgets or the manpower to advertise effectively. I say all of this because I really do love theatre and want to promote talent and provide encouragement to artists of all skill levels. At least, I thought I did – that was until I saw Amy Drake’s Somewhere I Can Scream; that title has more verve and bite than anything in the show.
The play is based on the true story of Dr. James Howard Snook, a professor of Veterinary Medicine at Ohio State University and former Olympian, and his affair with (and murder of) student Theora Hix. The Hix-Snook case was all the rage in 1929, with details of the affair and murder becoming the stuff of urban legend. The case was noteworthy for the time in the explicit sexual details divulged during the hearing, much of which wasn’t even able to be printed or hinted at in newspapers of the day. The title Somewhere I Can Scream comes from an alleged quote by Hix concerning where she and Snook should rendezvous, commenting that she preferred to meet “somewhere I can scream.” True to its source, this production comes with the following disclaimer: Due to the explicit sexual nature of the story no one under 18 will be admitted. That disclaimer is what probably enticed my friend Kona into attending with me. What’s funny is that the production (what I saw of it – more on that later) was as steamy as reading the back of the Famous Amos cookie box.
The play opened with a reporter talking about the murder and going to visit Snook in jail. He spouted off a bunch of facts that were almost verbatim from the Wikipedia article that I read about the case in preparation for seeing the play. The actor playing the reporter was handsome but terrible, his speech sounding like he was reading a teleprompter operated by unruly children. It wasn’t long before I realized that he was the best actor in the show. I’m refraining from naming the names of the actors in this review as I think the blame should fall directly on the writer/director’s shoulders for this debacle; I’m sure the extent of her direction to her cast was, “Just show up!”
The reporter asked Snook, “Is it true? Did you really do it?” “Yes,” Snook replied, as if conceding that he ate the last donut. “Did I ever tell you about the time I invented the Snook Hook? It is a device used to spay and neuter animals. It revolutionized the industry!” Talk about a non sequitur… Random facts were inserted into the dialogue throughout the show with wild abandon and without care for how they landed.
The story was told in a series of flashbacks, a convention that may have worked had they been fleshed out or well written. Characters spoke in a completely unnatural, artificial way, like androids. Many of the actors appeared under-rehearsed as well, speaking in a halting pattern of start/stop/start/fumble/start way that was unnerving, like they were suffering from some neurological disorder. The scene where Snook and Hix meet was unintentionally funny as their lack of chemistry and stilted speech pattern was the epitome of what people think of when they imagine community theatre, which is unfair as most community theatre I see is quite good. The actors weren’t given lines to perform that had any character to them, and so their line readings were devoid of any emotion. It’s almost as if the entire cast had been lobotomized shortly before the performance.
The performers frequently had lines that stated their feelings rather then evoked them. “I’m excited” or “I’m upset” or “I’m scared” just doesn’t cut it. Why not have characters speak to each other with lines that express their emotions rather than spell them out? The ineptitude of the writing continued with the grammatical errors on the Powerpoint projection that spelled out the location of each scene. Even the program was poorly photocopied and laid out, with bios missing words from being cut off along the margin. Did I mention that I paid $50 for my friend and I to see this exercise in futility? “I’m hot for you. You really please me,” said Hix. “Oh, what a quagmire!” Snook replied. It was all written and performed as if English was their second language when I know damn well it wasn’t. “I have arrived here at medical school as an only child…” Who says things like that? Again, I’m paraphrasing, but the dialogue was filled with such awkward exposition.
Entire scenes played out with introductions like, “Transcript of interview between Mrs. Snook and her lawyer.” If these were actual transcripts then I don’t know what to say except that they should’ve been rewritten. I just don’t buy that people talked to each other in such arcane ways, even in 1929. Bad dialogue performed badly can be giggle inducing, and any scenes involving the lawyer were guaranteed to bring those out in me and my friend. He was perhaps the most ill-prepared of the group, often appearing like he was reading his lines off of his steno pad and that they were written in handwriting that he was having trouble deciphering.
The discovery of Hix’s body had a cop standing over her, saying lines like, “The body was found by two sixteen-year-old boys this morning. Based on the decomposition of the body, we figure she was murdered last night. A girl was just reported missing by her roommates. Maybe we should see if somehow that disappearance and this body are related.” Gee, you think? At one point it looked like the cop nudged her body with his foot, but at no time did it seem like he inspected the body at all. In fact, Hix was lying face down with her arms and legs splayed about is if she had not been moved.
My friend and I often found ourselves looking away from the action in embarrassment. There is an interrogation scene with Snook in which a cop is abusing and harassing him into confessing that is intensely erratic as if the actors are each reading lines from completely unrelated plays. It was around that time that I took note of the lighting, thinking it was something I could at least compliment the show for; almost as quickly as I thought that did the lights go out and then come back on in the middle of dialogue where such a cue was clearly not placed.
I can say that I thought the costumes looked old fashioned even if not quite period. The set is very sparsely decorated, but that works just fine too. I didn’t have a problem with the car being represented by some photocopies pasted together on some cardboard either. So much of theatre is in the suspension of disbelief, in filling in the voids where there is nothing and being a part of the experience. I’ve seen many outstanding productions in the Van Fleet Theatre at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, some with even less set decoration and appropriate costuming; I’ve never seen anything so badly performed or written about subject matter that could seemingly write itself.
When the intermission card appeared on the screen, a patron behind us sighed, “Thank God.” My friend and I looked at each other, glad that we weren’t the only ones that found the evening interminable. Then the man said, “I need to stretch my legs. It’s good, right?” he asked, turning to his wife. She agreed that it was good. My friend and I then left, content believing that at least the rest of our Friday night could be salvaged and that there was nothing that could possibly come in the second act that could redeem the show. Nothing short of starting from scratch and rewriting everything could salvage this work, and that’s sad for me to report. It baffles me how such a lurid and exciting true life crime could be distilled down to something so middling and flat. After seeing this, I don’t think I would even trust the author to write down a recipe with any accuracy.
I apologize to anyone who read my prior post about the play, but know that I’ve learned an important lesson: Never promote or recommend ANYTHING sight unseen. I won’t let it happen again, I assure you. I feel like one of those people who warned others not to vaccinate their kids due to the fear of autism and then found out that the medical research was all made up.
After seeing Amy Drake’s Somewhere I Can Scream, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I heard that her next production would be a staged reading entitled The Back of a Package of Seeds. I’m sure it would be more exciting and interesting than what I saw last night.
Somewhere I Can Scream continues through to July 26th in the Van Fleet Theatre within the Columbus Performing Arts Center at 549 Franklin Avenue, and more information can be found at http://drakeorationcompany.com/