Theatre Review: “Octopus” at the Phoenix

Ricardo Melendez in Octopus - photo by JulieCurryPhotography.com

Last Thursday night I met my friend, Chris, and his partner, Doug (who is also becoming my friend, I hope!) at the Phoenix Theatre in downtown Indianapolis to see the opening night performance of the Midwest premiere of “Octopus,” by Steven Yockey.  Bryan Fonseca directed it, assisted by Brandon Gelvin.

It is an intense show, full of satisfying surprises both in terms of the story and the staging of it.  After a lot of post-show discussion, Doug pronounced it “poignant.”  Chris pronounced it “genius.”  I loved it, too, but for maybe different reasons than they did. 

 “Octopus” is the story of a young gay couple – Kevin and Blake – who invite another, slightly older and longer-established gay couple – Max and Andy – that they met in a bar to their home to have sex with them for fun.  The ménage a quatre is more Kevin’s idea than Blake’s, however.  When the play opens, the more-experienced couple is late and Blake is having serious second thoughts about the adventure, to the point of having a panic attack.  Kevin assures him that sex with other couples is “what men do.”  Blake reluctantly agrees to give it a try.

When the other couple arrives, we see immediately that although they have been together for longer than Kevin and Blake, their relationship, too, has issues.  Max and Andy have had sex with other couples fairly often in the past, but Andy is older than Max and only tolerates it now because Max continues to want it.  It is no longer what he wants. 

Max’s desires are ruthless enough to power past everyone else’s ambivalence.  Kevin dims the lights and pretty soon everyone’s clothes are on the floor and everyone is kissing and exploring each other’s naked bodies.  They are bite-your-lip sexy.

Max and Blake move to the bed, Andy follows them, and Kevin…stands watching.  Just before the lights go out completely to signal the end of the scene, he flees into another room.

All of this happens in the first scene.  The rest of the play is about the unexpected feelings that come up for each of the men in the days afterwards, and the actions they each take, especially after they learn that Andy is sick.

It’s not what you think…

WAIT!  Please don’t think, “Andy is sick?  Oh, man, another dreary AIDS play.” 

I haven’t actually seen that many AIDS plays, dreary or otherwise, but Doug has.  For over a decade he has worked actively with and for the gay community and has contributed his performance art to many, many AIDS research benefit events.  During the reception after the show Thursday night he told me that at first he thought that “Octopus” was going to be “Angels in America” all over again.  He wasn’t putting down that play, but he was depressed to be hearing that same message – which I interpreted to be “AIDS is real, AIDS is tragic, AIDS affects everyone, be aware, be safe” – 20 years later. 

“Have we learned nothing in all this time?” he wondered.

However, Doug said that by the end of this play, “I did a 360.”  I.e., he had completely come around in favor of this show because THAT was its message: have we learned nothing in all this time?

Doug told me that AIDS among gay men 18-25 years of age is steadily increasing.

He told me that he hears young gay men say things like “I just don’t like safe sex” and therefore they have sex without taking precautions to prevent the spread of disease.  They didn’t live through the time when gay men and their friends were going to three funerals a week, so they think AIDS is only something that happened to previous generations.

They think there is a cure for it.

The playwright, Steve Yockey, joined our huddle by the punchbowl at the post-show reception and told us that when one member of the young couple in the show says, “Andy tested positive” and the other says, “Positive for what?” it is not something Steve made up.  It is a conversation that he overheard in real life.  It was part of what prompted him to write this play.

I was moved by everything that Doug and Steve said about why the play is important to them, but the play resonated with me for other reasons.  For me, the play was about messages in general, rather than one specific message.

Information from Emotions

I believe that God or the Universe or whatever you want to call it, is always sending each of us messages that are important for us to hear.  For me they come seemingly randomly through books, shows, and other art, or through relationships, both fleeting and long-term.  If I ignore a message that is crucial to my development as a person and therefore to the development of the human race, the Universe sends it to me again in another, perhaps more uncomfortable way, again and again until I deal with it.  I might accept the message or I might reject it but ignoring it is not an option.

I love that in “Octopus” the messages from the Universe come in the form of telegrams on yellow paper delivered by a hilariously perky Telegram Delivery Boy (Scot Greenwell) dressed in a uniform straight out of the 1950s.  (Costumes by Beth Marx.)   He is soaking wet, literally and symbolically.  He himself seems fairly free of emotion, at least at first, but he drips water all over Kevin and Blake’s floor, forcing them to pay attention to the message addressed to Blake that says that Andy has gone to live at the bottom of the ocean.

He has gone to live at the bottom of the ocean?  The young men wonder: what does that mean?  And how can there be a Telegram Delivery Boy in their home?  Do people even send telegrams any more?

Without telling Blake, Kevin tracks Max down for help in making sense of the message.  He learns that Max has broken up with Andy because Andy tested positive for AIDS.  Max has been getting telegrams, too, and Andy has disappeared.  But in the meantime there is something the matter with the pipes in Max’s apartment: they are filling his home with water and he doesn’t know what to do about it.

I thought this scene meant that we would not see Ricardo Melendez – the actor who plays Andy – again, and that made me sad.  But then suddenly we were at the bottom of the ocean with Andy.

In that scene, we, along with Andy, become aware of an unimaginably vast sea monster that throbs and glides in the dark waters surrounding us, more than willing to devour us.  Laura Glover’s lighting design, Bryan Fonseca’s sound design, and Christopher Hansen’s technical direction and props, plus Ricardo Melendez’s acting, all make us feel that the monster is very real, very large, and very near.

I cried all the way through Andy’s poetic reflections on the dangers of feeling safe.  I cried because he wasn’t talking just about death and disease but about love and trust, about betrayal and abandonment.  I cried in sympathy because he didn’t feel he had many choices, now, and yet he was trying to make the best choice he could.  I cried because I so very much wanted him to be able to make a choice that didn’t involve surrendering to the monster.

Oh, crap.  I am sobbing again as I write this.

We’re All Doing the Best We Can with What We Have at the Time

I felt sympathy for each of the characters, actually, even the predatory Max, who is given a feline creepiness by Nate Walden.  From the moment he walks into Kevin and Blake’s home, he takes possession of it, and them.  Max is clueless, but not clueless about his cluelessness, if that makes sense.  I wouldn’t want him on the inside of my life because he scares me, but I feel sympathy for his stuckness.

I felt sympathy for the naïve Kevin, played with a boyish stubbornness by Jason Gloye, too. However, I wouldn’t want Kevin on the inside of my life either, because if I’m going to take risks, I want to be able to depend on my loved ones to be right there with me, not off to the side watching and manipulating.   I let a lot of people “watch me” via this blog, for example, but only because I know that I can depend on my close friends and family to keep “touching” me, skin on skin, heart on heart. 

I understand Kevin’s fears, though.  I really do.  His fears and his inquisitiveness.  One of the first things that drew me to this show, in fact, was the promise of a chance to see hot, naked men in person with absolutely zero risk to myself.  Yup, unfortunately I can definitely relate to Kevin.

I also agree with the playwright’s comment to us afterwards that it is easy to say “I love you.”  Actually loving, i.e. – staying present and open and yet connected with another person – is much, much more difficult.

So Do We Ever Dry Out? (Spoilers)

Ben Snyder’s sensitive portrayal of Blake and his complex loss of innocence is what buoys me, what gives me hope amidst all these waves of soggy emotion.  The ending of the play is ambiguous, so I won’t be completely giving it away by talking about it.  You will, I’m sure, want to discuss it at length with your friends, too, if you decide to go see this show. 

This is how I interpret it:

While Kevin is talking to Max, Blake disappears.  The Telegram Delivery Boy arrives with another telegram, this time adressed to Kevin, but Kevin refuses to accept it.  He screams for Blake over the Telegram Delivery Boy’s now almost violent insistence that Kevin take the telegram that says (I assume) that Blake has gone to the bottom of the ocean, too.  Kevin chooses to call Blake back, in spite of the telegram, but Blake also chooses to hear him and answer the call.  Both choices are important.

I am not convinced that the two men will stay together forever, because I think that Kevin’s choice is still more about fear than love.  However, I am convinced that Blake will always be able to resist the monster’s call because his choices really are based on love – love for himself and for others.

This example gives me hope for myself, too, a message from the Universe for which I am deeply grateful.

The Set and the Special Effects (No spoilers)

I promised the playwright that I wouldn’t tell you any specifics about the cleverness of the special effects or the compelling ways in which they support the audience’s experience of the story, so I will just say that even if you are “not into gay issue plays” or “not into touchy-feely plays,” if you are at all into the potential that live theatre has to be technically impressive, you won’t want to miss this show.   The special effects are uniquely “wow!”

Also amazing is the fact that you sit just a few yards away from the stage, and yet the special effects are completely believable even as they’re wowing you.   In fact, they are beyond believable: they are real!  Their execution is polished but there is nothing “digitally enhanced” or distancing about them.

The studio apartment set itself, even before any of the special effects, is elegant.   “You can tell that’s a fag’s apartment,” Chris said, as we found our seats before the show and looked at the curtainless stage. “And you can quote me.”

I laughed and asked, “How can you tell that it’s a..?”  I couldn’t bring myself to use that particular “f” word.

“All the candles and other lights, and the clean lines.”

I’m still not exactly sure what Chris meant, but I loved the large, round, porthole-like window over the bed.

James Gross designed the set.  It was constructed by Christopher Hansen, James Gross, Glen Bucy, Amanda Lynn Meyer, Cody Grady, Ricardo Melendez, Clay Zook, Brandon Gelvin, and Kristen Johnson.

The stage manager is director Bryan Fonseca, assisted by Amanda Lynn Meyer.  As I mentioned before, Christopher Hansen is the technical director and also in charge of props.  Dani Norberg is the light and sound operator.  Kristin Johnson assisted Laura Glover with the lighting design and is also the assistant master electrician.  The run crew consists of Amanda Lynn Meyer, Natasha Cox, and Brandon Gelvin.

Speaking of the run crew reminds me to tell you that the play runs around 85 minutes and there is no intermission.  The black-clad crew members rise like eels from murky, unexpected locations to make set changes between scenes.  I don’t know if that is an intentionally-created visual or whether it just came out of a need to make changes quickly, but it is startling and fun to watch.

A Quick Word about the Language

This is also a play not to miss if you, like me, love to hear beautifully-crafted lines that sound completely natural – these men use the other “f” word frequently – and yet which also surprise and delight.  I stopped jotting down expressions that I loved after the first scene or two because there were just so many.  Some day I would like to buy a copy of the script as a souvenir.

A Quick Word about the Opening Night Reception

The play’s the thing, but I just have to tell you, too, about the refreshments at the lobby party after the opening night performance because they were an additional treat.

Someone from Henry’s on East coffee shop had made a cake with a big, purple 3-D octopus on top.  It was a hoot!  Someone at the Scholar’s Inn had made other ocean-y nibbles, including a yummy calamari salad; a delicately-seasoned shrimp salad with sliced, whole shrimp; and thin slices of meat on skewers with a special dipping sauce whose name reminded me of tropical islands.  (I’m sorry: I wasn’t in note-taking mode then, so I can’t tell you what it was.)  There was hot coffee and generously spiked punch to drink, or you could buy a locally-brewed beer or soft drink from Jessica at the pub window.

For Reservations

“Octopus” is scheduled to run on the Main Stage at the Phoenix Theatre on Thursdays-Saturdays through Saturday, July 11, 2009.  There will be no performance on Saturday, July 4, but there will be a bonus performance on Wednesday, July 1.  Duke Energy makes it possible for Thursdays to be “Cheap Seat Nights” for which the tickets are only $15 instead of $25.  Please call 317-635-PLAY (7529) to make a reservation.

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com

PS – I saw this show a second time with a different friend and got a completely different take on it.

PS2 – I saw this show a third and fourth time, and wish I had time to see it a fifth time!

14 thoughts on “Theatre Review: “Octopus” at the Phoenix”

  1. Hope,
    You have written a fantastic review of this show. I am really looking forward to seeing this show. I am just sad I missed opening night, the reception sounds amazing!
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the show, the photo you posted is stunning!
    Can’t wait!!

  2. Thanks very much, Phyllis! I would love to hear what you think of this show after you see it. I bet you will love it, too. (But, of course, I am open to hearing whatever you have to say about it.)

    I had many more responses to the show that I didn’t include in my review because it was already several pages long and I had already spent several hours on it.

    I agree with you that the photo is stunning. Julie Curry (www.JulieCurryPhotography.com) took it. If you roll your mouse over the photo, that should show up, but not everyone knows that, so maybe I should start putting photo credits in the reviews themselves. Hmm.

    Anyway, thanks for reading, and maybe I will see you when you go to “Octopus.” I definitely would like to see it again.

  3. Thanks for the great review, Hope. We had a great opening weekend, and a blast with Pride. Our float won Most Original. And there was an amazing turn out. Looking forward to the rest of the run and maybe, seeing you again.

  4. Hope,
    Thanks so much for your review. I’m glad that you enjoyed the show and were able to take so much away from it. That’s what we all hope for, to effect thought/reflection/change/emotion from the audience. So good to see you after the show as well, always a pleasure.

  5. You’re welcome, Ben and Jason. Thank YOU for a great night at the theatre!

    And Ben – hah! – that is so great that the Octopus float won Most Original. I saw some photos of it that Zach Rosing took and laughed out loud in delight.

  6. thanks for coming, hope. glad the play connected with you.

    as far as getting a copy of the script, Samuel French just published it, so you can buy a copy from them if you’re interested.

  7. as always, enjoyed reading your review and am looking forward to seeing “octopus.”

    THANKS, HOPE!

  8. I just wanted to share that in 10 years of seeing theatre in Indianapolis, “Octopus” has been my favorite production I’ve watched in the city.

    The play is quirky and beautiful and the Phoenix cast and crew handles it dynamically.

    I’ll be returning to see the show at least once more.

    Kudos, Phoenix.

  9. Wowsers, Zona, what an endorsement! Thank you!
    And Hope, thank YOU for all your kind words. I’m sorry I didn’t get to chat with you at the reception Thursday night.
    Since I first read Octopus over a year ago, I’ve loved it and known how important it is to produce. I’m overjoyed that it’s been so well-received, and I’m honored to be in the cast.

  10. Thanks, Gail and Zona, for reading and commenting.

    Zona, I am delighted that you, too, had such a profound experience with this show. I’ll be returning to see it at least once more, too, so maybe I’ll see you at the theatre!

  11. Scot, I’m sorry I missed you, too! I know I don’t come across as shy, but I really am, especially in “crowd” situations like a party, so I focus on the person I’m with and just sort of let other people come to me if they want to. I guess this helps me stay put rather than fleeing, but it also means I miss noticing a lot of people I like.

    Anyway, if I _had_ seen you at the party, I would have told you that I loved your portrayal of the Delivery Boy’s progression from pleasantly insistent to aggressively insistent. And you were just so cute and funny! I am laughing again, remembering.

    Oh, man, is it Thursday yet? I want to see this show again!

  12. My husband and I saw the play in the Phoenix area last evening and were moved by it. We talked about it all the way home and both began humming the fade-out song at the same time. Thank you for your review. It was a message on many levels. I had a front row seat and got a bit splashed, but was wearing a trench coat and felt part of the action. The actors were superb.

  13. Thanks very much, Naoma, for reading my blog and for leaving your comment! I am very glad to hear that “Octopus” is being produced, and produced well, in other places.

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