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The Beasts Take Berkeley: Animal-Sized Desires Roar in Two New Plays 

Wednesday, Sep 5 2012

When you descend the steps of La Val's Subterranean for Impact Theatre's latest show, you aren't just entering a small black box theater in the basement of a UC Berkeley pizza joint. You're diving into "the mysteries of the dark waters" — mysteries that can "sexually assault you."

The Fisherman's Wife, by Steve Yockey, gets its name from one of the earliest examples of tentacle erotica, The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife, an 1814 Japanese woodcut in which two octopi have sex with a thoroughly diverted lady. But when Yockey's play opens, its lady, Vanessa (Eliza Leoni), is very much not diverted. She's stuck married to a milquetoast in a sleepy seaside town when her true calling might be a back-alley knife fight. Her husband, Cooper (Maro Guevara), vies for her attention before venturing out for what will likely be another unsuccessful fishing trip, but she keeps her eyes glued to her issue of Self, her every hostile page flip a harpoon to his sense of adequacy.

Yockey unsettles this marital stalemate with three unexpected visitors: an octopus (Sarah Coykendall), a squid (Roy Landaverde), and a traveling salesman (Adrian Anchondo), all of whom blow in from the sea and, wearing bathing costumes or suspenders and bow tie, seemingly from another time. The cephalopods speak like the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland, answering questions with questions, and in spooky unison, while the self-described "alt-attractive" salesman (the son, he tells us, of "a haberdasher") begins his sales pitch waxing poetic about the bittersweet nature of seaside living and ends it in his underwear, telling the story of his tattoos via a puppet show. And all three are all too ready to sex up the sexless marriage — consensually or not.

Ben Randle's direction of this pulpy, surreal play celebrates theatrical contrivance. Bags somehow hold props bigger than the bags themselves (à la Mary Poppins), oversized tentacles burst through doors, and sticky red goo oozes onstage from various violated orifices. The ensemble revels in the silliness, even as the story becomes more and more preposterous. The Fisherman's Wife marks an auspicious beginning for the Impact's 17th season. It's boundary-pushing yet accessible, oversized but intimate, and always fun.

Large animals are busting onto stages all over Berkeley. On the other side of town, at Shotgun Players, another beast — this one gentler than a rapacious squid, but no less awe-inspiring — features in Precious Little, by Madeleine George. At curtain rise, Nancy Carlin lounges on a throne made of fake grass in a pose better suited to Cleopatra than the gorilla she's playing, except it's not grapes dangling over her waiting mouth but a stalk of celery, which she proceeds to munch, millimeter by millimeter. "I chew," she says. "I swallow." In a play that's obsessed with language, The Ape is the most straightforward speaker.

Brodie (Zehra Berkman) is a linguist, but just because she's an expert in the "vowel harmony we typically associate with Mongol reindeer herders" doesn't mean she has the language to break up with her girlfriend (Rami Margron) or to express her feelings about the high likelihood that her fetus will have a genetic abnormality. Characters repeatedly implore one another to use "actual words" rather than insulate their statements in cant, but the play's truest connection comes not through language but look and touch (though mediated by the plexiglass of a zoo enclosure).

In today's theater, it's become a note of praise to say that a play doesn't resolve all the conflicts it establishes. Such a work better reflects real life, the thinking goes, than one that neatly ties up all its loose ends all at the same time. Precious Little ends even earlier, just as we've become aware of what those loose ends might be. Characters have just become rich, complex wholes, a parallel between two seemingly divergent storylines just suggested, the stakes of a decision just fully laid out — when the play ends. But somehow it doesn't feel abrupt or incomplete. Rather, Marissa Wolf's beautifully directed production shows that telling a very small part of a story can let you tell a much bigger one — and a funny, moving one, too.

About The Author

Lily Janiak

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