We were disappointed that we were unable to fit Tessa Flannery's intriguingly premised Tentacles into our schedule during its recent engagement at the FRIGID 2018 festival, so we were excited to learn that it would be part of the 18th annual Estrogenius festival. Estrogenius, which runs from March 8 to March 24, is a celebration of female and gender non-conforming artists, and has expanded from its origins as a short-play festival to include music, dance, short plays, comedy, burlesque, and even a walking event. (Among those events is an encore performance of FRIGID's winner of Best Solo Drama, Artemisia's Intent, reviewed here a few weeks ago.) Tentacles takes on the fraught debates around feminism, consent, porn, and fantasy -- a conversation that is itself something of a many-limbed monster -- with intelligence, humor, and nuance.
Flannery's play approaches its subject through the frame of a presentation on "Feminist Ravishment Fantasies" at an academic conference on feminist pornography. The presenter, Tessa (Tessa Flannery), draws a distinction between the terms ravishment and rape when discussing sexual fantasies, arguing that the former involves the subject being in control while the latter denotes an act of aggression.Within the category of ravishment fantasies, she takes tentacle erotica, most commonly today an animated genre, as her particular focus, discussing both its historical context in examples from an 1814 Japanese wooduct to works by Picasso to '70s and '80s horror film to the novel My Secret Garden, as well in the more personal context of a particular individual's discovery of the genre. At a certain, extremely effectively staged point, the play adds a male interlocutor: Chris (Chris Fayne), an actor of Japanese descent who performs in hardcore sci-fi-themed pornography. Chris begins by pushing back on what he sees as Tessa's cultural othering, her academic pronouncements on a society that she knows only though written accounts. His unasked-for insertion of himself into the proceedings leads to wide-ranging wrangling over the stereotypes, assumptions, and ideological arguments around pornography. Tessa and Chris touch on, for instance, female fans of gay male porn and erotica, racism in the adult video industry, and even Shakespeare's Pericles, in which virgin Marina is threatened with rape to get her used to working in a brothel (one of many Shakespearean examples that could have been selected). Their disagreements raise complicated issues of agency, power, and representation. What if viewers generalize specific fantasies, such as ravishment fantasies, to be what all women want? What does it mean to be a pro-sex feminist, and does that prevent one from criticizing certain types of sexual representation? And, perhaps bringing all of these issues together, what would feminist tentacle porn look like?
Tentacles avoids easy answers and simple characterization. Tessa's reaction to Chris's all-but "well, actually"s as she presents work in her field of study and her awareness of seeming inconsistencies between her academic work and her fantasies are so true-to-life that you can see the audience wanting to intervene. Chris could be right that Tessa is engaging in a kind of academic cultural tourism, but the defense of "you don't understand the culture" can also be used to justify just about anything (just look at any comment section for articles about sexuality and underage characters in anime or video games). He seems to defend sexual expression but holds the regressive attitude that women who like things like tentacle erotica must be sexually unfulfilled by their husbands or boyfriends, and Tessa speaks for all women when she disabuses him of this idea. Even Chris's defense that performers in ravishment scenarios set and agree to their boundaries beforehand is not uncritically accepted (in an unfortunate but instructive coincidence, an article was posted on the website Jezebel as this review was being written detailing a claim by two female performers of abusive boundary violations despite filmed consent agreements). The play emphasizes the murkiness that can exist along the boundary between (academic and feminist) theory and practice, between fantasy life and real life, by having Tessa occasionally be taken over by her own examples — the stripper, the woman in peril — fantasies irrupting into the analytic narrative. The boundary of consent in the real world, however, is not in question. Fantasizing about something does not constitute tacit permission; and Chris's notion that Tessa should own her tastes in sexual fantasy may be in itself defensible, but the way in which he tries to compel her do so absolutely is not.
Flannery and Fayne inhabit their characters, and we can confirm first-hand that the play really nails the discourse of academic conferences, which Chris completely disrupts. Tessa and Christ are believable characters in a slightly absurd situation. The production, while very entertaining, also smartly produces in the audience from time to time some of the same feelings of discomfort that Tessa discusses or undergoes. In asking why we still think it isn't normal for women to enjoy something like tentacle erotica, Tentacles asks larger questions about the conflicts within (academic) feminism, and the result is a... stimulating hour of theater. - Leah Richards & John Ziegler
Dr. Richards is an English professor in NYC, and spends her free time raising three cats and smashing the patriarchy. When not writing reviews, Dr. Ziegler spends a lot of his time being an Assistant Professor of English in NYC and playing guitar in a death metal band.