PianoFight: ‘Octopus’s Garden’ brings a gay family to the stage

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: 2/5 Stars » Somewhat Engaging)

This reviewer is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

What makes a play stageworthy? I would say that a good play requires an interesting situation and dynamic characters  so thoroughly invested in the circumstances that they respond with overwhelming emotional intensity. Characters and situation combined create an explosive result. Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire for example: A desperate woman, clinging to an elevated self-image, visits her newlywed sister and is raped by the sister’s low class husband. It drives her insane. Or Mamet’s American Buffalo: Three lowlifes plan a robbery. One of them is a control freak and when things don’t go his way, his world falls apart. Pressures mount unbearably to the point of violence.

My point? An interesting situation is not enough to make a successful play. Characters and situation must interact in such a way that the result is explosive.

In his first full length play, Scott Herman has given us a very interesting situation. Two lesbian lovers decide to start a family and are struggling with various issues on how to proceed. Is artificial insemination by a stranger the best approach? What about choosing a friend? Which partner should bear the child? Will the biological father be involved with the family?

This situation deserves to be written about. Audiences are interested in families, especially gay ones, as, for many, this is uncharted territory.

But, in this case, it is not enough to make a successful play. Although the situation of two lesbians trying to start a family is interesting in itself, playwright Herman has not created enough of a crisis to make it emotionally involving for the audience.

At the start of the play, we learn that Lilly and Claire are happy together with their daughter, Anna, to whom Lilly gave birth eight years before. Unexpectedly, Anna’s biological father, Grant, has shown up for a visit. Although he was once Lilly’s best friend, he has not been in contact at all in the eight years since Anna’s birth.

Lilly is happy to see Grant, but Claire is angry and frightened.

(l to r) Gabrielle Patacsil as Lilly, Nandi Drayton as Anna and Leah Shesky as Claire in the world premiere of Scott Herman's "Octopus's Garden". Photo Credit: PianoFight.

This is an interesting situation with many possibilities, but, inexplicably, the script does not fully explore them. The largest crisis in the play is when Claire is rude to Grant at the dinner table.

Instead of delving into the current crisis precipitated by Grant’s arrival, Herman’s script proceeds backwards in time, revealing the details of the relationships among these three. Lilly and Grant were best friends. Claire never liked Grant. Lilly and Claire struggled with the issue of artificial insemination. Lilly seduced Grant without telling Claire. The problem is, we know all this from the first scene, so there is no discovery or surprise. And the emotional payoffs just aren’t there.

The actors do their best with the material, and young Nandi Drayton as eight-year-old Anna is remarkably good.

PianoFight is to be congratulated for their commitment to produce original work, and their decision to take on a dramatic play instead of their usual comic shenanigans.

People for whom the issue of starting a gay family is personal and urgent will enjoy seeing their stories reflected on the stage. Others may leave less satisfied.

Octopus’s Garden continues as part of PianoFight’s Triple Threat on Saturday nights through April 28. For further information, click here.

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“Octopus’s Garden” by Scott Herman, produced by PianoFight Productions. Director: Devin McNulty.

Anna: Nandi Drayton. Lilly: Gabrielle Patacsil. Claire: Leah Shesky. Grant: Andrew-Hanson Strong.

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