Wincingly uncomfortable situations are Steve Yockey's stock in trade. Consider his 2009 play Large Animal Games, in which two roommates shag the same matador, but only one gets duped into paying for his transatlantic flight. Or take his new play, A Fisherman's Wife, which involves a brutal "tentacle rape," in which a person is raped by a sea creature. It's one of the most traumatic plot devices ever deployed in Bay Area theater, though it's presented in the context of a sweet, traditional marital comedy — one set in a fishing village, no less. If you scraped all the pulp out of Yockey's script, if could almost be a parable.
Or a soft-core porn. In Yockey's world, the two things are of a piece. A Fisherman's Wife — now premiering at Impact Theatre, under the direction of Ben Randle — begins with a ferocious domestic spat between Cooper Minnow (Maro Guevara) and his wife Vanessa (Eliza Leoni). Cooper is a fisherman, Vanessa is a bored housewife who spends her days feverishly paging through women's magazines and complaining that her life is "undercooked." Their opening fight seems like the climax of many smaller quarrels, all implied in the insults that Vanessa volleys at her husband. Their house is drab, their village is boring, and, worst of all, their sex life appears to have dried up. Yockey sets up the play's main conflict even before he gives us the lead characters' names. It escalates quickly; Cooper storms out to the dock; in short order, in walks a handsome traveling salesman (Adrian Anchondo). Cue the sound of waves.
It's anybody's guess why Yockey wanted to squander a rather elaborate maritime theme on what's essentially a war of the sexes. Most likely it was an excuse for him to unveil a series of woodcuts by the famous Edo-period Japanese artist Hokusai. One of them, called The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife, features a giant octopus performing cunnilingus on a reclining woman, while a smaller one covers her mouth. The salesman procures a copy from his bag and presents it to Vanessa. She gasps, then stares, then nods appreciatively, then ravishes the salesman.
Meanwhile, Cooper is out on the dock, confronting two anthropomorphized sea creatures that have stolen his anchor. One is a shaggy-haired gay squid (played by Roy Landaverde), the other a blond, doll-featured octopus (Sarah Coykendall). Both wear retro swimming trunks. They uncannily resemble the invertebrates in Hokusai's painting. Never one for subtlety, Yockey sends Cooper right into their lair. What follows is a severe trauma that could also be interpreted as a sexual awakening, depending on whether you accept the play's unusual moral compass. It's supposed to be a farce, and in the end, woodcut-inspired sea creature orgies are supposed to be the magical balm for the Minnows' ailing marriage.
In fairness, though, it takes a heightened imagination to view octopus rape as anything but unsavory. Hokusai made a persuasive case in his artwork: The woman closes her eyes and tilts her head back ecstatically as the octopuses cradle her in their warm, slithery embrace — their tentacles look like elegant arms, rather than priapic appendages. It's a little harder to accept that premise in the context of Yockey's play, though, partly because Landaverde and Coykendall both seem a little more carnal than sensual. The experience leaves Cooper so cruelly broken and wilted that even Vanessa takes pity. She grabs a big stick and seeks to defend her husband.
None of the phallic references should be lost on any audience member, given that most of them aren't even cloaked in a veil of double-entendre. The salesman's suitcase is filled with giant dildos; the anchor tattoo on his right forearm establishes him as both a nautical figure and a coital spiritual guide. It's no accident that Vanessa's stick is broader and more threatening than Cooper's fishing net — we already know who's wearing the pants in this relationship. Even the small details accumulate to form a prurient subtext. Vanessa insists, repeatedly, that her husband is actually quite well hung, although his choad-like appearance suggests the opposite. (Guevara has the small, wiry frame of someone who's about to jump out and penetrate you, albeit in a very shallow way.) The salesman, meanwhile, is tall and sleek and heroic, exactly the kind of figure who could yank a marriage back to life.
Considering Impact's reputation for campy, irreverent, often gay-themed material, a seafaring sex farce seems entirely apropos — not to mention the company has a longstanding relationship with Yockey. Audience members who don't take a prurient interest in mollusks will appreciate that the play is mercifully short (two thirty-minute acts divided by an intermission that's really just a Bon Jovi revue, with Landaverde on accordion), and that the most graphic sex acts happen offstage. Those who share Yockey's sensibility will find a lot to appreciate, even in the slapdash denouement. After all, it's hard to take a play too seriously when a Minnow is the conquering hero.