As it begins, Steve Yockey’s Octopus seems to be one more gay relationship play, with a younger couple and a longtime pair getting together for what one of the younger guys assures his nervous partner will be a night of stripped-bare fun.
But for Yockey, the image of four hot guys with intertwining limbs is just a starting point. The playwright goes deep, clear to the bottom of an ocean of feelings, fears and regrets. In its ambition and form, Octopus is a whale of a play.
It’s also one with particular technical and design demands, though figuring out how to meet such challenges in a small space is one of the things Fort Lauderdale’s Island City Stage always seems to get impressively right. The company does wonders within the intimate confines of Empire Stage, its performing venue, and the work on Octopus is no exception.
For the most part, the play takes place in the apartment shared by the younger couple, Blake (Craig Moody) and Kevin (Chris Mitchell). Designed by Carbonell Award winner Michael McClain, the place is simple and chic, with a pillow-lined bench and striking glass seaweed mural framed by walls with a wave motif. The under-the-sea look, along with a sunken portion of the living room floor, are artful and utilitarian responses to the wildly imaginative aspects of Yockey’s script.
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The fully nude group sex, with Kevin and Blake letting go with the more experienced Max (Juan Gamero) and Andy (Christopher Kauffmann), happens in a carefully choreographed, bathed-in-green-light scene near the start of the show. Kevin, the one who was pushing the adventure, suffers morning-after regrets and jealousy, in part because he ended up mostly watching as Max and Andy went crazy with Blake.
But things get really weird when a telegram delivery guy (Kristian Bikic) comes calling. The guy is just odd: manically cheerful, dressed in a uniform with nautical touches, and notably soggy, though it’s a sunny day. His telegram bears the bad news that Andy is at the bottom of the ocean being menaced by a monster. For Kevin and Blake, things go south from there.
Octopus deals with HIV-AIDS in a literal and metaphoric way. The virus might be the monster, and the prospect of it also shows Kevin and Blake revealing truths about their relationship. Yockey also explores the unpredictable consequences of decisions and the devastation that comes with losing even a problematic love.
Director Andy Rogow has cast the production well, with Gamero and Kauffmann bringing sharp edges to the more experienced couple, Mitchell and Moody conveying the insecurities and genuine love of the younger one. Stylistically, Bikic is the mysterious, intriguing outsider, one who becomes more controlling and threatening each time he appears.
What the Island City design team achieves with Octopus is critical to the production’s success. McClain, lighting designer Preston Bircher, sound designer David Hart, costume designer Peter A. Lovello, composer Kenneth Martinson and video designer Andy Fiacco create a world in which the “monster” grows ever stronger. Kauffmann delivers a haunting monologue from what seems to be the ocean floor, a speech enhanced by lighting, projection and sound effects. And once the fight choreography by John Manzelli gets going, eventually Mitchell, Gamero and Bikic (and, to a lesser degree, some in the front row) get soaked.
Island City has nurtured a devoted audience with comedies (the Carbonell-nominated Have I Got a Girl for You and POZ) and serious work (The Timekeepers, best production of a play at last year’s Carbonells). Octopus falls into the latter category, and while the piece itself isn’t as intense or shattering as The Timekeepers, the play has plenty to say to anyone navigating through the murky waters of a relationship.
If you go
What: ‘Octopus’ by Steve Yockey.
Where: Island City Stage production at Empire Stage, 1140 N. Flagler Dr., Fort Lauderdale.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday, through March 1.
Information: 954-519-2533 or www.islandcitystage.com.