The Fisherman’s Wife moves fast, on stage and off. It’s a jaunty little sex farce with sea creatures and puppets and giant tentacles, but at its heart, it explores what happens when a relationship goes stale. It’s also a play that didn’t exist at the beginning of this year and has found the stage very quickly. It has grown up fast.
I’ll start by introducing the Playwrights Union. This is a great organization for Los Angeles writers spearheaded by inimitable local playwright and “tireless community builder” Jen Haley (look for her new play The Nether at the Kirk Douglas this season). The first draft of The Fisherman’s Wife, originally conceived as a warped love letter to Impact Theatre in Berkeley, was written during the Playwrights Union’s annual February writing challenge — a month-long period where playwrights foolishly, recklessly crank out a first draft in roughly 30 days and then present the work in marathon. I’ve done it twice now. It gives you a feeling that’s something like heroic-by-way-of-near-psychotic-break.
My thinking at the time was twofold: 1) I’m going to take a stab at writing a built farce about the revitalization of a struggling marriage and 2) if I’m going to do that, then I’m going to use a lens I haven’t ever seen before to explore it: tentacle porn. Full-tilt, uninvited sea-creature-on-human action. Because that kind of extreme is probably exactly what a marriage on the rocks doesn’t need. If you sit down now and look up the traditional Hokusai woodcut “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife” (1814) then you’ll see what I’m talking about. In graphic detail. And read the translation of the accompanying text, too. I dare you not to squirm. It’s part of a storied tradition of tentacle erotica that may be a sub-sub-culture, but is still very much alive. Cooper, the titular fisherman in the play, says about his marriage:
“It would take some kind of harrowing moment to bring us back together now. And that kind of thing just doesn’t happen in real life.”
Good thing this is a play. Challenge accepted. Tentacles.
I could feign a cocksure confidence in that initial idea. That’s pretty much my routine when it comes to play development. But honestly the entire thing was a big, weird experiment. The good news is that thanks to the horrific one-month deadline and the fact that Impact Theatre was already locking its season, there wasn’t a lot of time to hem and haw. So a rough draft of something fun, bittersweet, and completely wrong landed on the pages in front of me and then, without time to second guess, headed straight out the door toward the Playwrights Union reading series. And I’m glad, in this case, that I didn’t have that time.
It’s important at this point to mention that when I saw Gregory Moss’ House of Gold last season at EST/LA several things happened: I briefly lost my mind with delight, I fell even more into psychedelic love with scenic designer Kurt Boetcher, and I decided that I needed to somehow work with Gates McFadden, the production’s director. Cut back to post-February challenge territory when, through some very Los Angeles “you know someone who knows someone” magic, Gates read the script and actually agreed to direct the reading — just before hopping a plane to Germany.
Upon arriving at the first (and only) rehearsal for that initial read, she greeted me in a giant summer hat with a hug and a naughty grin: “This is a wickedly funny, screwed-up little play.” I may be editorializing. Odds are that she probably used much stronger, more adult-caliber language. Regardless, the rehearsal that followed was filled to bursting with really fantastic insights on the script, thoughts on what was working and what wasn’t, puppet talk, and spirited forecasting of audience reactions to a ride full of broken romance, equal opportunity infidelity, and tentacled assault. Happily, the reading went well, buoyed by a lot of generous laughs from fellow Playwrights Union members and ringer friends.
Soon after, Gates expressed an interest in producing the play. My response — absolutely. Because of EST/LA’s laudable dedication to new work, the next step involved discussions with Melissa Hillman, Impact Theatre’s fireball artistic director, about developing the play between the two companies. They quickly hashed out a rolling world premiere in what might have been the smoothest negotiation of shared rights in the history of collaborative theater. And with an October opening looming, everyone was off to the races.
While Gates assembled a killer roster of exceedingly game actors, puppeteers, and designers — and a zealously upbeat producer in Andrew Carlberg — the production in Berkeley hit the stage under the direction of Ben Randle. It would feel great to quote the sickly fascinated and fun reviews, but it’s more entertaining to pull this comment from the slightly more demure East Bay Express critic, Rachel Swan:
“It’s one of the most traumatic plot devices ever deployed in Bay Area theater, but 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, it could almost be a parable.”
Yes. Thank you. But more exciting than the largely good-humored critical response to the play so far, audiences were having a lot of fun. Uncomfortable, loud, messy fun. And that reaction helped immeasurably to hone the script while heading right into rehearsals at EST — where the artists involved have taken things even further.
That brings us to now — the impending opening of The Fisherman’s Wife in EST/LA at Atwater Village Theatre’s new “Speakeasy.” I’m really in love with the intimacy of the space. Especially when the play gets a little dirty. And I’m genuinely grateful to all involved in the speedy journey of this play. Bring on the audience. That said, the best thing about Gates’ plan to produce the show in the new space is, love the play or hate it, it’s in a speakeasy. So there’ll probably be other things that can take your mind off the tentacles. Enjoy.
The Fisherman’s Wife, presented by Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA, Atwater Village “Speakeasy” Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Los Angeles, 90039.Â Opens Thursday. Plays in repertory with Does Anyone Know What a Pancreas Is? Check EST/LA site for show schedule. Through November 24. Tickets: $18. www.ensemblestudiotheatrela.org. 323-644-1929.
***All The Fisherman’s Wife production photos by Kevin Riggin
Steve Yockey is a Los Angeles-based writer with work produced throughout the country and in Asia. afterlife: a ghost story, Large Animal Games, Octopus,Â CARTOON,Â subculture (collected short plays) and Very Still & Hard to See (which Production Company did at the Lex in June) are published and available from Samuel French. Last season: afterlife: a ghost story co-world premiered at Southern Rep in New Orleans and New Rep in Boston, Heavier than… premiered at Theatre @ Boston Court in Pasadena (July 2011) and Bellwether premiered at Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley. This season: the new play Wolves will open in Atlanta, New Orleans, Phoenix and Los Angeles and the sex farce The Fisherman’s Wife will open in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Other plays include: Pluto, Wonder, The Thrush & The Woodpecker, and Feverish. Steve is a graduate of the University of Georgia and holds an MFA in Dramatic Writing from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts (2008). After completing a yearlong National New Play Network residency at Marin Theatre Company, he serves as an adjunct professor in the MFA Writing for Performance program at CalArts. He is the creator and co-executive producer of the Sony Pictures Television project Teeth and is currently adapting the Tama Janowitz novel Slaves of New York into a series for Sony/Wet Dog Entertainment/Killer Films.