Review: Octopus

May 29

Extended through June 21 at the Magic Theatre, San Francisco

Kevin (Eric Kerr, left) and Max (Liam Vincent) wade through murky relationship waters in Steve Yockey’s provocative Octopus, a co-production of the Magic Theatre and Encore Theatre Company. Photos by www.DavidAllenStudio.com.

 

Yockey’s Octopus explores inky waters of commitment
«««1/2 Dripping with intrigue

Steve Yockey’s Octopus is a thrilling, somewhat frustrating theatrical experience.

This inaugural co-production of the Magic Theatre and Encore Theatre Company delivers a first-rate production of a fascinating world-premiere play that ultimately comes up a little short only because Yockey sets the bar so high for himself at the outset.

What starts as another riff on gay romantic situation comedies quickly turns into something quite different then evolves into something else shortly after that.

Committed couple Blake (Patrick Alparone) and Kevin (Eric Kerr) are hoping to liven things up by inviting another couple to join them in the bedroom. “It’s something guys do,” Kevin says. Into their neat little urban apartment (fantastic set by Erik Flatmo, more on that in a minute) steps longtime couple Max (Liam Vincent) and Andy (Brad Erickson). While Andy natters on about wine, the voracious Max practically devours Blake with just a glance.

Director Kate Warner masterfully amps up the tension between the four men – as couples and as individuals – to humorous and then to anxiety-inducing levels. Soon enough, though, the clothes come off as Jarrod Fischer’s lights politely dim and the huddle of flesh makes its way to the bed. But things don’t turn out exactly as planned. Feelings are hurt, boundaries are crossed and the flood is unleashed. HIV-AIDS looms, even though Blake says: “It’s not even something people get anymore.”

Yockey is a funny, assured writer, and director Warner and her actors find the rhythms that heighten the laughs (“Don’t say my name like it tastes bad,” Blake snaps, or here’s Max describing a convoluted coffee order: “It’s like an insane caffeinated yard sale in a cup.”) and then underscore the drama. The tone of the play changes with the arrival of a telegram delivery guy (Rowan Brooks), who happens to be sopping wet. Danger fairly drips from the cheerful man, and with each telegram, Octopus grows more chilling.

The ability of Flatmo’s set to hold water becomes increasingly important as action shifts to the bottom of the sea and to apartments overrun with the fluid embodiment of fear – fear of death, fear of commitment, fear of anything honest and real. There’s brilliance in the set-up, with the ocean becoming a metaphor for illness and isolation and sea monsters becoming the threat of imminent death.

The fact that Warner and her crew pull off the aquatic special effects as well as they do carries the last portion of the 70-minute play, even as Yockey sets up a dramatic confrontation between the fearful Kevin and the increasingly angry telegram guy. By this point in the play, we’re literally swimming in metaphor (especially the people in the front row), and the function of the grim-reaperish telegram guy diminishes. We get it, so his presence, especially as the catalyst for dénouement never feels quite right (through no fault of Brooks, who is pitch perfect).

There’s still plenty of power and emotion in Yockey’s ending thanks largely to the excellent Alparone and Kerr, but getting there somehow took an unnecessary detour. And this is much too fascinating a play for detours. One of the hardest things to do in a theater is to scare people, but Octopus, with its crazy sea monsters (and rattling sound design by Sara Huddleston) and astounding imagery, comes close multiple times.

There’s something chilling about Octopus, and it’s not just because the theater is filled with water.

Octopus continues through June 21 at the Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, San Francisco. Tickets are$40-$45. Call 415-441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org for information.

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