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Liar Liar, House on Fire

Photo by Erin Fiedler

When poet W.B. Yeats famously proclaimed that myths and legends hold deeper truths than facts, it’s a shame he wasn’t around to read Henry Waxman’s just-released, prodigiously documented report on the hundreds of lies and deceptions that have been uttered by the Bush administration over the past 15 months. Yeats was traipsing across the Irish countryside with Lady Gregory, the pair of them gathering and recording local yarns, to compare and contrast them with stories from other regions. It turned out that people from all corners of the planet — Jews and Hindus, Celts and the Sioux, people who had never met and never had any contact with the others’ literatures — came up with similar fairy tales and rural legends that helped define who they were. Yeats concluded from his research that in the art of bending facts into fiction, populations, like plants, lean toward the light.

Of course, Yeats was referring to an organic literary process rather than a manipulative one, which directs populations to the shade — Bill Clinton on network TV, wagging his finger and swearing to us that he never had sex with that woman. A poetical lie can hold a larger truth, but the cynical lie mangles whimsy with duplicity, giving innocent fairy tales a bad name. That’s what Jayson Blair did. And Tony Blair and Connie Rice and Donnie Rum, and the clergy who persecuted Galileo. Given the evidence, some of them must have recognized the possibility that they might have missed God’s point, that Earth might not anchor the solar system, or that a Tower Records outlet in downtown Basra might not be part of God’s greater vision. Still, they all drove their insistence with homespun fabrications, and even mortar and steel. When we abnegate facts and veracity for the formation of policies in conformity with predisposed views we hold of the world, we’re pissing on the Enlightenment.

 

These are very much the concerns of Tom Jacobson’s clever new verse play, Sperm (rendered entirely in iambic pentameter and presented by Circle X Theater Company at the 24th Street Theater). The play is adapted from Jacques Miroir’s 18th-century play, Cachalot. If you look up cachalot, it means sperm whale. If you look up Jacques Miroir, you’ll be looking for a very long time, because he doesn’t exist — obviously, nor does his play, though Jacobson dutifully explains in his “adapter’s note” that Jacques Miroir is “almost certainly a pseudonym.” Jacobson also rules out the possibility that Marie Antoinette was the play’s author. (Thanks, that’s very helpful.) Jacobson knows that he’s reinventing history, based on nonsense, for his own agenda. In fact, he’s satirizing that very reframing of historical legend, so prevalent among a small cadre of world leaders who might be said to be tossing around Democracy like a dog’s bone and watching while the hounds vie to retrieve it in their jaws.

His central character, Richard (Joel McHale), as in Dick, makes things up as well. He’s American, the only American in the play, and, if he’s to be believed, the bastard son of Thomas Jefferson. Richard’s a whaler (hence the joke of the title) and rabid proponent of Democracy, so he says. Given how he stumbles into the court of Louis XVI (Jim Anzide) and Marie Antoinette (Michaela Watkins) just as the guillotines of the French Revolution are being greased, you might say this Dick’s floated into the wrong port at the wrong time.

Fortunately for him, Louis XVI sees commercial possibilities in whale oil — the French economy is beached, so to speak, the peasants are livid, and the monarchy hasn’t been particularly sympathetic to the plight of the needy, or to France’s social fabric in general. The rich are very rich, and the starving poor are eating cake crumbs, when tossed in their direction. Only the perilous pursuit of oil can stem the rising tide of fury.

And through the idea of whale oil, Jacobson invents a fanciful parallel with fossil fuel, and how its use awakens the spirits of the fossils from which it came, as though the great leviathans represent a former, ancient civilization whose blood we’re now drinking, whose bones we’re now wearing in our corsets and as jewels, creatures who once walked the Earth as the titans of Atlantis before being forced back into the deep by changes in the climate.

Richard expresses this invented history after a whale hunt (partly narrated, partly enacted) in which he’s swallowed whole like you-know-who and spends an hour or two in the beast’s stomach, where he’s saturated in acid and stripped of his epidermis. When he finally emerges, bald-pated, semiconscious and blind, all Dick can utter are guttural whale noises (until the verse returns), as though possessed by the spirit of Moby what’s-his-name, as though belched back onto Earth like a newborn, or a reborn. That one scene is as fantastic as it is fantastical, played with an amalgam of adventure, horror and spirituality by co-directors Tara Flynn and Tim Wright on Richard Augustine’s transforming set of rope and cloth and a welded steel frame.

The play’s question here becomes, What is Richard really up to? Is he the whale-spirit-prophet that he appears, like some Ashcroftian Holy Roller, or is he faking it as part of a calculation, concocted with the Queen, to emerge from the whale pretending to be a prophet so he can nudge the King toward participating in a national Democratic assembly and thereby forestall revolution? Jacobson reiterates that scheme, that plot point, at least twice in the play. (“Within mere days, he’ll have his conscience pricked./When all of France believes he’s on the verge/Of calling the assembly, he’ll emerge/To meet their expectation and proclaim/A policy to set their hearts aflame”), yet with each repetition it makes no more sense. Though it’s far-fetched (okay, after you cut me out of the whale’s belly, I’ll pretend to be blind), that’s not the problem: Goofy contrivances also populate You Can’t Take It With You and Merton of the Movies to no ill effect. Rather, the intricate mechanics of Marie’s plotting and planning clash with the play’s mythic surrealism. Some local critics have been baffled by the play, not because they’re stupid or want only kitchen realism, but because Jacobson employs two conflicting theatrical languages. It’s as though he’s trying to graft the kind of farcical scheming you’ll find in Molière (Sperm self-consciously riffs on Tartuffe) onto the absurdist trunk of a play by Ionesco or Albee. One is grounded in logic, the other in its opposite. Jacobson can’t have it both ways, and he doesn’t.

If Sperm were to speak in a single theatrical language, Jacobson’s expansive world of ideas would seem less diffuse. Whether Richard is a prophet or a fraud and, consequently, whether or not the fawning King is a dupe forms the play’s Tartuffe-like centerpiece. When the King proclaims that his own faith has made Richard a prophet, we’re back on our own Capitol Hill, with history invented by a king through his hot line to God — a full-frontal attack on the Enlightenment.

Jacobson’s ample wit fills the wide and cavernous stage. Anzide’s foppish Louis sparkles with a kind of bubbly skepticism — if Richard is merely playing the prophet, Louis is certainly only acting the dupe. Watkins’ petite, tightly coiled Marie Antoinette spits out little sarcasms as the embodiment of drollery. It’s remarkable how charming she is, given her little glued-on smile. Sarah Hartmann fleshes out the large, vivacious ensemble as resident nun-abortionist Sister Louise.

The details of Louis and Marie Antoinette’s fate in Sperm take huge liberties with recorded annals. Both the royal couple, and their author, keep toying with events, reinventing history, or trying to. Whether or not any story is a reduction of or an expansion upon the events of life depends on the quality and purpose of the lies. Jacobson is an excellent and poetical liar — the best kind — and his play opens a small window onto the shape of despair born of greed and neglect.

SPERM | By TOM JACOBSON | Presented by

CIRCLE X THEATER COMPANY at the 24th STREET THEATER, 1117 W. 24th St., Los Angeles Through April 17 | (323) 461-6069


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