"Silence Equals Death" served as one of the battle cries of AIDS activism. Since treatment has advanced enough that HIV is no longer a death sentence, some of the urgency has left AIDS as a social concern in this country, and a different, more consensual kind of silence can surround it.
In Actor's Express' Octopus, playwright Steve Yockey doesn't mention AIDS by name (post-Angels in America, plays almost never do), but he attacks people's silence over the disease, along with other communication faults, with both anger and imagination. In its world-premiere production, Octopus moves from naturalism to something strange and surreal, taking a high-risk gamble with audience acceptance that pays off at nearly the last possible minute.
In plays such as Skin, Sleepy and Cartoon, the young playwright (and, in full disclosure, former Creative Loafing employee) has probed at the extremities of human behavior in stark terms. Directed by Dad's Garage Artistic Director Kate Warner, Octopus opens with a long sequence that counts as some of the funniest, most naturalistic writing the young playwright has ever done. Young lovers Kevin (frequent Yockey performer Joe Sykes) and Blake (Tony Larkin) await the impending visit of a pair of older gay men (John Benzinger and Mitchell Anderson) for some bedroom adventurism. Reluctant Blake lacks Kevin's enthusiasm, and the other couple's arrival proves exactly as awkward as you could imagine.
After the fact, the incident has far-reaching repercussions for Kevin and Blake, initially putting strains on their domestic bliss. The situation becomes much more mysterious following a message from a telegram-delivery boy (chirpy but sinister Brian E. Crawford) who bears eerie, inexplicable messages. Yockey uses imagery from horror films and aquatic-adventure genres as manifestations of anxieties over illness, intimacy and alienation. With its supernatural elements, Octopus suggests a bid to be a new generation's answer to Edward Albee's sea-monster play Seascape.
Octopus' greatest strength nearly creates an irreconcilable problem. Larkin and Sykes play the tensions and conflicts in Kevin's and Blake's sharply observed relationship so beautifully that the play's realism nearly undermines its more enigmatic, fantastical content.
There's a method to Octopus' madness, though. The plot twist and emotional release of the play's final moments prevent the more dreamlike content from turning into just a labored metaphor. Octopus affirms Yockey's boldness in venturing into uncharted theatrical waters, even though some audiences may not be willing to accompany him into the deep end.
Octopus. Through Feb. 23. $22-$27. Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Actor's Express, 887 W. Marietta St. 404-607-SHOW. www.actors-express.com.