Squiddily Diddling

Playwright Steve Yockey has had plays produced locally by Magic Theatre, Climate Theater and Marin Theatre Company, but it’s good to see that he keeps coming back to Impact Theatre, the pizza-parlor basement company that introduced him to the Bay Area with 2007’s Cartoon. The Fisherman’s Wife, which opened last weekend, is Yockey’s fifth production and third world premiere with Impact.

Sarah Coykendall and Roy Landaverde in The Fisherman’s Wife. Photo by Mary Kay Hickox.

You should probably be forewarned that this play has nothing to do with the Grimm fairy tale The Fisherman and His Wife. Instead it’s inspired by the 1814 Japanese erotic woodcut The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife by Katsushika Hokusai, the most famous (and artistically respectable ) example of tentacle porn, which shows a large octopus going down on a naked woman while a baby octopus plays with her mouth and breast.

Nothing nearly that graphic happens in The Fisherman’s Wife, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of squiddily diddling going on. Anne Kendall’s set is a cartoony mural of a squid and an octopus fighting over fish, but the actual tentacled sea creatures appear in the play as normal people. That’s how they get you.

Sarah Coykendall and Roy Landaverde look like two young attractive people in old-timey striped swimsuits who often (but not always) speak in unison, but in fact they’re a horny squid and octopus trolling the boardwalk for people or animals to tentacle rape. Anything that turns them on, really—and unfortunately for everyone, everything turns the molesting mollusks on. Coykendall’s squid exudes a sneering, defiant sexuality, contemptuous and confrontational, while Landaverde’s octopus oozes blank intensity, an amusing way of staring unnervingly without a sense of what (if anything) is going on in his head. What the nature of the illusion is that makes them appear human isn’t explored, except that they seem as surprised by that as we are.

Things are not going well for the fisherman and his wife, who haven’t been getting along for a long time. Maro Guevara’s squeaky-voiced, neurotic fisherman Cooper Minnow tries to be nice, but his unhappy wife Vanessa (a forceful Eliza Leoni) can’t even stand to look at her “disappointing non-man of a husband,” scarcely tolerating it when he tries to talk to her. She’s bored to death in the fishing village and resents her husband fiercely for neglecting her sexually and being bad in bed besides. At first she seems unbearably hostile and shrewish, but as nautical atrocities liven up her life she perks up and becomes positively heroic.

Clad by Liz Weston in early 20th century garb (bow tie, suspenders, trim mustache), Adrian Anchondo is smooth and impeccably polite as the traveling salesman Thomas Bell, who repeatedly seduces people by acting as if he’s the one being seduced and is only being agreeable. He also serves as an occasional narrator, but those monologues aren’t terribly interesting—which makes it all the funnier when Thomas tries to recycle his introduction as a sales pitch and people cut him off, saying this part is boring.

“Salesman,” he announces in a variant of the old Saturday Night Live “Land Shark” routine, piling on the descriptors until he gets a response. “Traveling salesman. Alt-attractive traveling salesman. Attractive in an alternative way, you understand.” Thomas prides himself on being able to sell anything anyone might need, from healing elixirs to giant phallic totems, pulling a wide variety of items from his impossibly deep duffel bag that’s red and white striped to match (as we soon learn) his briefs. He also have a number of tattoos, some of which have disturbing personal stories attached to them, told in an elaborate puppet show and involving more tentacle shenanigans, and some of which don’t have any stories at all.

Thomas is also clearly up to something, trying to hide the fact that the erotic Japanese woodcuts depicting tentacle play that he shows Vanessa are set at the very same dock where her husband docks his boat. But if Thomas has a master plan, it never comes to light. He’s just a mysterious guy. Mysterious in an alternatively attractive way, you understand.

Director Ben Randle’s staging takes a little while to find its land legs, in part because the characters have a mannered way of talking that takes a while to get used to. It makes the first scene between the fisherman and his wife feel particularly stiff, at least until it escalates into a screaming argument that seems to loosen the actors up. (Maybe a little too much—Guevara managed to break the door right off its hinges while bursting into the room at the performance I caught, the last preview.)

There are a lot of clever touches throughout the play, such as how much of the dialogue in the second act parallels the first, but it feels like a bunch of promising pieces that don’t quite fit together at this point. Still, it’s often hilarious, especially pretty much any scene involving the sexual predator cephalopods, who may come out to entertain you with their musical stylings during intermission. Just try not to catch their eye.

The Fisherman’s Wife
Impact Theatre
Through September 29
La Val’s Subterranean
1834 Euclid Street
Berkeley, CA

Show #77 of 2012, attended August 24.

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