March 15, 2004





Beached Whale at 24th Street

Inscrutable Plot and Self-Conscious Dialogue Hamper Well-Acted Premiere


By Rob Kendt



Cleverness in a playwright is like empathy in an actor: It's a native, even essential trade tool that can become a dangerous tendency if not harnessed to sturdy dramatic craft. Few things are more deadly, theatrically speaking, than a play self-smitten by its own verbal and thematic brilliance, or an actor in love with his own emotional depths.


Thankfully, Circle X Theatre Company's new production, Sperm, now at the 24th Street Theatre (Circle X lacks its own performance space), doesn't have the latter problem. If anything, the generally excellent, well-drawn performances could use some loosening, not tightening, up.


That's not easy, though, with playwright Tom Jacobson's arid, convoluted new play, whose needless contortions begin with its purported source material. It's not for laughs--I think--that Jacobson claims he's adapted it from an obscure 18th-century French text, Jacques Miroir's Cachalot.


So, is it a ploy to lend his own work a superfluous gloss of authority? An elaborate inside-joke parody of, um, French Revolutionary theatre? A telling parallel to the scams and sleights of hand his characters pull on each other? An excuse to write the whole thing in doggerel couplets?


If only this question of provenance were the sole head-scratcher on offer here. After a promising opening in a Paris tavern where we meet the principles--Richard, a sly, gangly American whaler (Joel McHale), and royals Louis XIV (Jim Anzide) and Marie Antoinette (Michaela Watkins), who've ducked in to avoid a riotous mob--the play almost immediately becomes a tangle of machinations that manage somehow to be both tiringly complicated and dully obvious.


Antoinette conspires with a mincing Duc (Casey Smith) to trick Louis into forming a strategic alliance with the bourgeoisie--I think I have this right--because she sees it as the only way to stave off the more radical forces of revolution. Her scheme has something to do with sponsoring Richard's whaling expedition, then extracting him, disoriented and barely alive, from the whale's stomach, then placing him in Louis' path as a voice of moderate revolutionary ideas.


Surely there are simpler, and clearer, ways to win her husband to her point of view. But then Jacobson wouldn't get to throw in the horror/sci-fi evolution of a bald, Butoh-faced Richard (who's soon insisting that people call him Dick) into a sort of half-man/half-whale Cassandra.


This miraculous transformation into a walking sea-man (say that carefully) can only be played for laughs, I guess. But Cynthia Herteg's costumes, which are elsewhere so resplendent, don't even try to overcome the ridiculousness of the spectacle. And Dick's final, inevitable harpooning--after portentous allusions not only to Jonah but to a "second Christ"--is anti-climactic, to put it kindly.


Much of the blame here must be laid at the feet of co-directors Tara Flynn and Tim Wright, who seem to have focused their efforts on a pair of set pieces--the rollicking opening scene, and a hushed, candlelit second-act dinner between king and queen--and left the rest of the play unattended. Richard Augustine's set and Jonathan Klein's lights are consistently innovative, and persistently under-used.


The directors' biggest failing, though, with this world premiere play is not to call Jacobson on his more rarefied ramblings--to get him to clarify the action and kill a few of his darling verses.


The actors, particularly the always-vigorous Anzide, do their best with Jacobson's meandering, rhyme-choked repartee. McHale fares best in the first scene, chilling the room with a riveting tale about a whale's ghost avenging its death. And even in his second-act transition to a salt-water prophet, he manages to give some of Jacobson's more florid, imaginative musings the recitative rapture they call for.


Along the way we learn a bit about the many uses a whale's parts are put to, from its brains (that's where we get the spermaceti oil for candle wax, boys and girls) to its blubber. Somewhere along the way, though, Jacobson's stated themes of revolutionary politics and environmental apocalypse, and the tenuous link between the two, get lost at sea.


Oh, well--he can always blame Jacques Miroir.