Joel McHale, David Paul Wichert,and Jen Kays in Sperm(Photo © Erin Fiedler)
Joel McHale, David Paul Wichert,
and Jen Kays in Sperm
(Photo © Erin Fiedler)
Not every play written in iambic pentameter is preoccupied with masculine bodily fluids, but the bawdy Sperm dares to be different -- with uneven results. Presented by the Circle X Theater Company, Tom Jacobson's play is an intriguing study of the seeds of fate, melding fantasy and historical fiction. In the end, CliffsNotes in the program would have left audiences less dazed and confused. But Sperm does boast two electric performances by Jim Anzide and Michaela Watkins as King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

On the dawn of the French Revolution, Louis and Marie meet a whale hunter (Joel McHale) who happens to be Thomas Jefferson's illegitimate son. Louis becomes immediately entranced by the young man and his tales of ghost mammals, while Marie finds in him a viable pawn for her own machinations. Thus begins a round-robin of seduction and game playing that plants the kernel for upheaval from the third tier of French society. Once the whale hunter devises his own plot to overthrow the monarchy, he becomes a sort of Rasputin to the king and queen.

Adapted from Jacques Miroir's 18th-century play Cachalot, Sperm is written in the rhythm of a Molière piece. While the rhyme scheme Jacobson attempts is enjoyable for short stretches, it soon becomes tiring; many of the rhymes are too clever by half. Also, the fusion of old-style poetry and modern colloquialisms like "gross," "puke," and "I'm off" leaves the viewer discombobulated. A section of dialogue on the subject of sexual activity is so frank, you'll forget that Marie Antoinette and a vicious nun are the speakers rather than Carrie Bradshaw and Samantha Jones from Sex and the City.

Co-directors Tara Flynn and Tim Wright have turned the stage into a circus. Seamen (forgive the pun) slide across the stage with ropes, and a clever mirror trick turns an action scene between a warrior and a beast into something very exciting. However, the cast never gels as an entity. In fact, the acting in the opening scene gives the impression that the production may not rise above college level. Some lackluster stage combat feels phony, and when McHale enters, the energy level does not increase; he brings a competent but tame presence to a show that has already gotten off to a slow start. Then lightning strikes as Anzide and Watkins enter, at first cloaked and inconspicuous. Within minutes, they take center stage, immediately connecting with the audience and noticeably raising the quality level of the production.

Anzide portrays Louis as a fop whose voice continually climbs into a high register. Dressed in sequined threads that he could have stolen from a patron at Studio 54 circa 1980, he plays a true clown. Watkins, a striking beauty, is wonderfully adept at comic asides, particularly during her conflicts with the above-mentioned nun (Sarah Hartmann). In their scenes together, Watkins and Hartmann find a perfect tempo in which to spew venom upon each other. Watkins gives a delectably lustful performance that teeters on madness, particularly at the end; her despair during the play's final moments is both poignant and frightening. As the fey, decadent Duc de Coigny, Casey Smith is cunning. Like Hartmann, he works well with the two leads as a perfect sparring partner.

But the play's the thing -- or isn't the thing. Sperm's muddled metaphors can be exhausting. At the end of the show, I found myself relieved that I would not be tested on the meaning of it all.