Written by Tessa Flannery; Directed by Rebecca Cunningham
Part of the 2018 FRIGID New York Festival
Off Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 3.2.18
UNDER St. Marks, 94 St. Marks Place
by Sarah Weber on 3.3.18
Tessa Flannery in Tentacles. Photo by Jody Christopherson.
BOTTOM LINE: A woman’s doctoral thesis about tentacle porn is hilariously turned inside out by an old flame and his unsolicited help.
Before the house lights dim, we watch writer-performer Tessa Flannery sitting in a corner of the stage scribbling in her notebook. Above her head reads “Feminist Ravishment Fantasies: Why do we still have to answer this question?” Once the play starts, we learn we’re at a conference that brings together feminist scholars and adult entertainment professionals, and Flannery’s character is about to present her doctoral thesis. She has spent months of research on the subject of ravishment fantasies and on a “female test subject” who genuinely enjoys tentacle porn, a genre where women are forced into sex acts with monsters that have tentacles. She has collected all relevant data, all of her facts are memorized inside and out, and she has done more than her fair share of historical and cultural research—she’s prepared. What could go wrong?
Just as Flannery dives into tentacle porn’s historical roots in Japan, her former colleague and old flame Chris Fayne, who also happens to be a porn star, shouts from the audience to—you guessed it—interrupt her. Over the course of the play Fayne takes over the presentation and forces Flannery to publically reveal more about herself and her own fantasies than she’s comfortable with. Along the way, Tentacles cleverly addresses various issues ranging from the downright hilarious to the deeply uncomfortable.
To be clear, it’s a good thing that Tentacles makes you squirm in your seat. In the wake of the #MeToo movement it has become increasingly evident that sex and consent must be addressed regardless of whether the conversations are easy. Much to my relief, Flannery and Fayne’s characters challenge each other, making the production a nuanced exploration that demonstrates why topics like feminist ravishment fantasies are still fraught with difficult questions.
No matter how off course the presentation goes, Flannery continues to challenge Fayne even if he doesn’t seem to be listening. Even as he pressures Flannery to confess her sexual fantasies, she quickly reminds Fayne about the dramatically different consequences women and men face when admitting to such personal information. That said, it’s also difficult to dismiss Fayne as a mere manterruption. When he first speaks up, he points out potential gaps in Flannery’s understanding of tentacle porn’s current role in Japanese culture (he's Japanese). His argument can’t go ignored, especially in today’s increased calls for intersectionality in feminist discourse. At the same time, his valid points don’t excuse the highly problematic ways he takes over the show and disregards Flannery’s comfort levels.
Another aspect of Tentacles is Flannery’s personal asides. Throughout the presentation, the stage is suddenly awash in red light and we enter Flannery’s imagination. For brief moments we watch her fantasies come to life in a highly campy fashion; they’re so vivid and intense for Flannery that once the lights change back she needs to put herself together. Director Rebecca Cunningham does an excellent job at making these asides both separate from and an intrinsic part of how Flannery’s character navigates her presentation. They infuse Tentacles with much needed humor that fully embraces the weirdness of sexual fantasies without the shame that typically follows them.
These fantasies are only snippets—we never see them finish a full narrative arch. Likewise, most of the arguments that Flannery and Fayne start remain unresolved. This includes the cultural debate, which is both frustrating and problematic in and of itself. But it's also clear that Flannery has no intention of wrapping questions around feminist ravishment fantasies in a neat little bow. It’s a complicated conversation, so leaving the theater with more questions than when we first entered is to be expected, if not encouraged.
(Tentacles plays at UNDER St. Marks, 94 St. Marks Place, through March 2, 2018. The running time is 50 minutes. Performances are Thu 2/15 at 10:30, Sat 2/17 at 2:10, Wed 2/21 at 8:50, Fri 2/23 at 8:50, and Fri 3/2 at 5:30. Tickets are $10 and are available at horsetrade.info.)
Tentacles is by Tessa Flannery. Directed by Rebecca Cunningham. Fight/Intimacy Direction by Claire Warden. Workshop Dramaturg is Jolene Noelle. Production Stage Manager is Claudia Toth.
The cast is Tessa Flannery and Chris Fayne.