Arts & Events

EYE FROM THE AISLE: Octopus’s Garden in SF—A Tale of Two Mommies—great acting, lesser writing.

BY John A. McMullen II
Monday March 19, 2012 - 10:27:00 PM
Gabrielle Patacsil, Nandi Drayton and Leah Shesky.
Andy Strong
Gabrielle Patacsil, Nandi Drayton and Leah Shesky.

Produced by PianoFight, OCTOPUS’S GARDEN by Scott Herman premiered Saturday at 414 Mason Street near Geary.

It is a domestic drama of the conflicts of a lesbian couple in choosing the sperm donor for their planned pregnancy. Told in reverse chronology, it has some very talented actors. However, the writing is mundane; it contains a few amusing moments of situational tension that evoke laughter, but it is the actors who carry the show by the easy believability of their performance and the emotional connections between them. 

It has the added awkwardness of having serial scenes in different locales. Director Devon McNulty has chosen to have the actors change the set in blackouts which often last for over a minute. When a drama with this format is chosen to be performed on an open stage, part of the concept should be how not to keep the audience waiting. It is inadvisable to allow the energy and story-flow to drop while the actors scurry about in the dark collecting props and dressing the next scene. In jarring contrast to the explicit realism of props, drinks, furniture, and décor is a pantomimed fourth-wall door. 

Another drawback is the seating itself: very comfortable wide chairs, but the audience is on the flat and the stage is on an un-raked two foot dais, which obscures the view from many seats; a set of risers might have been considered. 

Notable is Andrew Hanson-Strong, who is handsome and whose acting is strong (who could resist that applicable pun?). In the role of Grant, a gay guitar player, he is always connected to the moment and gently reveals his character’s sexual-orientation, expressing it more when on his second vodka. He is inventive in his expression, and he alters both his emotional burden and physical appearance to lend credence to his character’s arc. His connection with his former roommate Lilly, who plans to play momma and get pregnant, is buoyed up by the same realism and inventiveness by Gabrielle Patacsil; Ms. Patacsil has the same exceptional acting chops. 

Playing their eight year old daughter is Nandi Drayton, a 2011 Critics Circle nominee, in one of her first dramatic roles—she has played many musical leads with Berkeley Playhouse. Though older than eight, she plays young convincingly. She modulates her responses to the conflict between the adults around the dinner table with a triggered expression of concern alternated with the sort of “tune-you-out” ability that children have. Ms. Drayton is joyful and playful in her connection with her parents, Lilly and Claire (played by Leah Shesky, the foil of the nervous, jealous academic second mommy). In her cautious dance of getting to know Grant, Ms. Drayton is always in control of the situation as children can be when an adult is trying to make a connection with them. She alternately directs his coloring as a teacher would, then switches seamlessly to her child persona, running to fetch her toys to display for him. (Disclaimer: I was Ms. Drayton’s tutor for a couple of months; whatever direction Director McNulty imparted to her was deftly conceived and employed.) 

There are inconsistencies in the script (what’s the chance of getting pregnant from a one-time try? Maybe 1 in 25?), and I am still pondering the significance of the title which is usually a key to interpreting the drama. It is plodding in the plotting, leaving little revelation in the unraveling, since it is told in reverse with no surprises. There is neither sufficient change of rhythms within the scenes to jump start the action nor between the scenes to contrast one scene from another: these are both writing and directing concerns. It is devoid of physical passion, save one semi-clunky jump-your-bones moment after a semi-charming drunk scene filled with revelations of past heterosexual indiscretions between lesbian and gay friends. While the actors save the play with their invention and realistic, quirky spins, sometimes their milking of the moments in that fashion slows it down even more. 

PianoFight is a relatively new company committed to new drama. It has embarked on transforming the closed Original Joe’s restaurant at Turk and Mason into a theatre-restaurant. 

Octopus’s Garden plays Saturday nights March 17 - April 7 at the Alcove Theater, 414 Mason Street; 

and April 14 – 28 at Stage Werx, 446 Valencia Street, SF. 

More info/tickets at 

John A. McMullen II is a member of SFBATCC, ATCA, and SDC. EJ Dunne edits.