Snakes in a play

Horror-comedy world premiere slithers on stage at Theater Company of Lafayette

'SNAKE!' offers a mix of satire, scares and a surprising dose of environmental commentary. Courtesy: Theater Company of Lafayette

Imagine wading through the murky waters of the Everglades, only to realize there’s more beneath the surface than meets the eye. Those South Florida swamps set the stage for SNAKE!, a horror-comedy play entwining the fates of wannabe filmmakers and colossal constrictors. 

The Theater Company of Lafayette’s latest production is the world premiere of the new work by Paul Wells, who hopes it will slither its way into audiences’ hearts with a mix of satire, scares and a surprising dose of environmental commentary. 

“My plays tend to be a combination of very light-hearted comical pop culture-inspired stuff with an underlying message going on, and this is no exception,” Wells says. “On the surface, it is a lighthearted parody that has a lot of fun with the whole giant python thing, but underneath it is a more serious message about invasive species.” 

SNAKE! follows a ragtag group of documentarians who find themselves in a serpentine nightmare deep in the Everglades. Their unexpected savior? A reclusive hermit who has an uncanny rapport with the area’s giant Burmese pythons. As the crew tries to survive, they stumble upon revelations about themselves and the invasive species threatening their every move. 

Cocaine Bear meets Sharknado

Describing the show as a cross between campy cult favorites Cocaine Bearand Sharknado, Wells says inspiration sprung from real-life headlines about Burmese pythons wreaking havoc in the Everglades. 

“I started banging out the play once these stories started becoming constant clickbait,” he says. “For a while, every week, there were dozens and dozens of python stories, and after I started writing the play, the TV show called Python Hunters came out.” 

The 2010 reality series served as research for the play and demonstrated that Wells was onto something. His personal experiences living with snakes in his youth add a layer of authenticity and respect for these misunderstood creatures to the narrative. 

“My roommates when I was much younger had large collections of snakes,” he recalls. “I lived with seven or eight different snakes at one point. You learn to respect them. They don’t freak me out. Poisonous snakes freak me out for all the appropriate reasons, but constrictors are phenomenal creatures. They will not attack unless you provoke them or they’re really hungry. That being said, the 14- to 21-foot-long pythons aren’t the ones you keep in an aquarium in your bedroom — that’s a monster.”

‘We owe them our respect’

Bringing SNAKE! to life was no small feat, especially with the looming challenges of COVID-19. Two actors got sick, which threw a wrench into rehearsal schedules and forced them to delay opening from
a planned February debut.  

“Making theater right now is still hard,” says Michael Gurshtein, who plays the hermit. “But I’m looking forward to opening soon, and I hope audiences come ready for laughter and jump scares.”

And for squeamish theatergoers concerned about close encounters with the reptilian titans, the creative team suggests sitting on the far left side of the stage when you enter, where there is less direct “snake action.” 

“One of the things I appreciate about Paul’s play is that in horror, things are often scarier when you don’t see them and they’re just suggested,” says artistic director, board member and the play’s stage manager, Madge Montgomery. “We’re making a lot of suggestions that the snake is closing in on the audience and the crew in different ways with sound, lighting and other practical effects.”

Skin-crawling aside, when the curtain closes on SNAKE! at Theater Company of Lafayette, Wells hopes audiences will reflect on humanity’s role in the natural world. 

“Even those of us who are sympathetic to climate change tend to talk about it in terms of how it affects humans,” Wells says. “We owe our fellow creatures on the planet a lot. It’s a symbiotic relationship, and we owe them our respect. They aren’t our property. We only have one planet, and we’re all sharing it.” 

ON STAGE: SNAKE! March 1-10, Theater Company of Lafayette, 300 E. Simpson Road, Lafayette. Tickets here.