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A hunt for that leviathan known as democracy

An American seaman carries revolutionary ideas to the French throne in the unusual new play 'Sperm.'

March 12, 2004|Philip Brandes | Special to The Times

In a refreshingly original and imaginative debut staging from Circle X Theatre Company, Tom Jacobson's "Sperm" combines the literary DNA of 18th century French drama with postmodern irony to spawn a whale of a tale (literally -- the title refers to the species of leviathans that have loomed large in symbolic portent since Jonah's night sea journey).

History, mythology, poetry and scatological puns collide with dazzling ingenuity in Jacobson's quirky seriocomic gem, composed entirely in rhyming iambic pentameter. Clearly billed as an "adaptation" of a supposed subversive historical text ("Cachalot" by Jacques Miroir), "Sperm" explores the twilight of the French monarchy as it tries to stem the rising tide of republicanism among the populace. Amid the intrigues at pre-revolutionary Versailles arrives Richard (Joel McHale), a fair-spoken American seaman who accepts a royal invitation to instruct the French in the ways of whaling.

This Nantucket Yankee in King Louis' court comes bearing more than fish stories -- he also introduces contagious American ideas of democracy and equality, along with a mystical awareness of the animate spirits of hunted animals. These radical concepts are invigorating to the intellectually curious Louis XVI (Jim Anzide) but threatening to the more politically savvy Marie Antoinette (Michaela Watkins) and her scheming allies of convenience, the decadent Duc de Coigny (Casey Smith) and the corrupt abbess, Sister Louise (Sarah Hartmann).

Although Richard starts out as a political pawn, he confounds everyone (including the audience) by getting swallowed by a whale and mutating into a new life form after his rescue. Imbued with the spirit of the slaughtered whale, he uses his newfound magical powers to exact revenge on the human race. In the complex view of "Cachalot's" anonymous author, the need for social reform was urgent, yet the democracy we now revere seemed a force of anarchy, threatening the extinction of the human race.

This odd tale is a perfect fit for the Circle X troupe's signature offbeat sensibilities. In this inventive staging by Tara Flynn and Tim Wright (their first as the company's new artistic directors), even apocalyptic forebodings are tossed off with breezy wit. When King Louis recounts his prescient nightmare about being devoured and beheaded by wild animals, Marie Antoinette quips: "No wonder you could not get back to bed / A pillow's not much good for just a head!"

*

'Sperm'

Where: 24th Street Theatre, 1117 W. 24th St., Los Angeles

When: Thursdays to Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m.

Ends: April 17

Price: $20

Contact: (323) 461-6069

Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes

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