30 April 2014

The Last Frontier, Part 3: The Inside Passage (Juneau and Ketchikan)

[I left off “The Last Frontier” with Part 2 on 5 April.  It covered the first leg of the cruise down the southeastern coast of Alaska, through the Inside Passage from Seward, where we embarked on the MS Statendam, to Sitka, the capital of Russian America during the first two-thirds of the 19th century.  I pick up in Part 3 with the final portion of the sail south in the Gulf of Alaska until we docked in Vancouver, British Columbia, for our final disembarcation.  I recommend going back to read Parts 1 (26 March) and 2 before reading Part 3.]

After departing Sitka at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, 13 August 2003, our next port of call was Juneau, the state capital.  We had booked a long excursion here, encompassing an overview of the city, plus a three-hour whale-watching cruise, a salmon-bake lunch, and a visit to Mendenhall Glacier.  (That’s the one I mentioned in Part 2 that you can fly out to in a helicopter, land on, and then get out and tromp on—but those flights are all quite expensive, and I didn’t see any real need to walk on the ice just to say I did it.)  On Thursday, 14 August, the ship docked in the early morning, of course, and we got off at about 8 a.m. to board the tour bus.  Finally, the weather caught up with us and it was pouring rain in Juneau.  This, as I said, is typical of the Inside Passage in summertime, and there wasn’t anything we could do about it.  Fortunately, the rain came and went a bit (or we came and went in and out of it—I’m not sure which), and it was less of a dampener, if you will, than it might have been. 

Our first destination was the marina where the whale-watching boat docks, and we drove out along Glacier Highway, Juneau’s one highway called simply The Road (it’s all of about 14 miles long in toto; remember, this is the state capital you can’t reach by land!), getting a little survey of the city, which is small, like all Alaska’s cities after Anchorage.  (Anchorage is a little over a quarter of a million.  Juneau is next with about 31,000 inhabitants, then Fairbanks at about 30,000.  Believe it or not, little Sitka is fourth.  The whole state has a little over half a million people—not counting tourists.)  The rain had slowed to a drizzle as we drove, and we caught views of the glacier and the mud flats along the bay, which would be under water by the time we drove back past them in a few hours.  (As I said, the tides differ by several feet from low to high, and they come in and go out quickly.  When we returned to the ship in mid-afternoon, the gangplank, which had been on Deck 5 when we left, had been moved down to Deck 4 to accommodate the higher water.) 

The whale-watching was terrific.  The boat is enclosed (though you can go out on deck if you wish), so drizzle and ocean spray aren’t a problem.  It wasn’t luxurious, but comfortable enough, with windows all around for easy views.  There was a naturalist on board to give us information about the ecology and the wildlife, and the captain was a native Alaskan who knows the waters well and added his observations.  The boat supplied binoculars for every other passenger, and since we had a pair of our own, Mom and I didn’t even have to share a pair.  There was even a small galley on board (it’s a three-hour tour—propitious phrase), so coffee and snacks—mostly sweets and salmon-based hors d’oeuvres—were passed around from time to time.  There’s no set route; the captain goes where he feels whales and other sea life might be hanging out, and the other boats in the bay give heads-ups as they spot stuff.  Of course, we had a view as we pulled out into the bay of the Mendenhall Glacier behind us, and we sailed through the extension of the Mendenhall River as it flows into the bay, as I described in Part 1.  (That’s the opaque, glacier-fed river that flows out into the clear seawater bay without blending in for several miles.  I don’t know how long it goes before dissipating into the ocean waters and disappearing.)  This was a successful voyage—they essentially guarantee seeing whales at this time of year; they’re quite abundant as they feed in preparation for their return to Hawaii to breed.  Still, we got to see some uncommon sights—one even rare and unique to Juneau. 

Our first sightings were lone humpbacks diving for food.  These are solitary animals; they don’t travel in pods, a fact that would be significant later in the trip.  Those well-circulated photos of whales rising up out of the water, breaching into the air dozens of feet high—that doesn’t happen much in Alaska.  It’s behavior whales exhibit at the other end of their cycle, in Hawaii.  What we saw was a simple dive as the whale’s head comes above the surface, usually preceded by a spout of water as the blowhole clears the water in preparation for the breath the whale has to take to make its dive.  Then, as the head reenters the water, the hump appears above the water line, and then the tail comes up in an amazingly graceful arc and reenters the water.  Depending on how deep the whale is diving, it will repeat this behavior over and over every few minutes, moving along several hundred yards at each dive.  You can more or less predict where it will surface next in each successive dive, so it’s easy to track the whale once one’s been spotted (look for the telltale spout).  Even though this is a repetitive sight, it’s fascinating in its grace and form.  It almost seems like slow-motion as this huge animal arcs up and back into the water, and the tail seems to hang there a little longer than natural, as if the whale has paused a moment in mid-dive.  All this, of course, has to be viewed through the binoculars because the regulations prohibit the boats from going closer than something like 300 yards from the whale.  The engine is damped—the boat can’t just shut down like the busses in Denali; it’d drift away—and we sort of make a little circle both to stay put and to give both sides of the boat a view of the whale as it dives and resurfaces.  (The regulations also prohibit more than a certain number of boats from gathering at one spot when a whale is spotted.  I think it’s three at a time.  Like I said in Part 2, the Alaskans are pretty protective.)

After a few minutes, we’d move along to another spot where the captain thinks a whale might be feeding, slowly meandering around the bay.  En route, we spot some porpoises, drawn to the boat’s wake to play.  They were Dall’s porpoises, named for the same man who identified the sheep we saw in Denali (Part 1), and they’re black and white, like small killer whales.  (The captain said that some people mistake them for baby killers.)  Unlike the whales, which are solitary and shy, the porpoises are playful and travel in pairs or groups.  They’re also very fast, especially compared to the whales—no slo-mo here.  You can’t catch them with binoculars because they’re under the water by the time you get the glasses up to your eyes.  There’s also no warning spout like the whales give off—just a quick glimpse of the dorsal fin as it breaks the surface first.  But the porpoises follow alongside the boat so closely, you can see them pretty well with the naked eye—as well as their speed allows, anyway.  Along the way, we also saw some sea lions lounging on a buoy, and some others just hanging out on a rocky little island.  We also saw several seals in the water, close to the shore of a small island, not far off from another feeding whale.  (I gather they chose that spot to catch the whale’s left-overs.  When the whales feed, they scoop up tons of fish and churn up the water some as they dive, surface, and spout.  This frightens fish, especially herring, and they head for the surface to escape the noise and the bubbles.  The seals just wait around and catch what shows up.)  We also saw some eagles, this time perched on trees on some of the nearby islands—but they were really too distant to get the classic bald eagle sight.

After a time, the captain deadheaded for a specific spot in the bay.  He’d been called over by another boat to see something particular—he didn’t tell us what it was.  We joined a couple of other little boats—one was particularly tiny, considering the size of the whales nearby—and waited a few minutes.  Then a couple of whales surfaced—it looked like two or three at first—and the naturalist began explaining this phenomenon.  Remember, humpbacks are solitary animals; they don’t travel in groups and they don’t work together—except in this one instance: a “bubble-net feed.”  This is a behavior that’s not only rare, but it’s unique to Juneau.  Not just Alaska, but Juneau.  No one knows why that’s so, but it not only doesn’t happen in Hawaii, it also doesn’t happen in Sitka or Ketchikan, either.  And it’s rare even in Juneau.  A bunch of whales—this group turned out to be about a dozen in the end—get together and instinctively set up a cooperative effort to get more fish.  One whale dives deep and makes noise to frighten the fish, especially the herring, which are apparently the most susceptible to fear this way.  Another whale—and no one knows how the roles in this co-operative are assigned or how the whales decide it’s time to switch jobs—makes a kind of net of bubbles by blowing air out of its spout and swirling around as it swims upward.  As the noise frightens the fish toward the surface, they get hemmed in by the bubble-net and channeled right into the waiting mouths of the rest of the group of whales.  These whales just dive and surface to scoop up as much of the fish as they possibly can, making simultaneous arcs that look like a whale water ballet.  The arcs of the surfacing whales, from the head, through the hump, to the tail—which is the only part to fully break the surface and fly up into the air—are often absolutely parallel, three or four or five whales diving in a sort of choreographed succession.  If you didn’t know better, you could think you were watching Disney animatronics—it’s that perfect.  Needless to say, we watched this for some time before moving away.  (Boats aren’t supposed to hang around too long—I don’t know if there’s a specific time limit or if it’s just up to the captains to decide—so as not to inhibit the whales as they feed, and also to allow other boats to come in and have a look, too.  Feeding is their one and only chore in Alaska, to build up their blubber supply for the trip back to Hawaii, where they breed and calve.  If they don’t eat their fill while they’re north, they don’t survive the journey south.)  I don’t know how long this behavior went on, but it was a remarkable sight—paid for the whole day in Juneau, I can tell you.  One remarkable aspect is that, on top of being a fascinating phenomenon, the whole activity was absolutely gorgeous aesthetically.  (And, in case you can’t picture them, humpbacks aren’t especially beautiful creatures—not like killers or blues.  They’re quite ugly, really—out of the water.)  What a treat!

After the whale-watching, we drove up to the Visitors’ Center of the Mendenhall Glacier, the most accessible glacier in Alaska (maybe even North America—I’m not sure).  As I told you, not only can you fly over it in a plane, but you can land on it in a helicopter.  You can also drive up to it—-well, to the Visitors’ Center; then you can hike out to the actual glacier.  As I said, I didn’t see the need to stand on the ice—seeing it from as close as the grounds of the Visitors’ Center seemed quite enough of a visit.  Not that the glacier isn’t a natural phenomenon worth the attention, you understand, but being this nearby seemed good enough for me, not being a glaciologist.  The Visitors’ Center provides a lot of information about the glacier (and glaciers in general), as well as panels that describe the parts of the glacier you can see from the building and its grounds.  Then you can go out and walk to as close to it as you like, depending on your stamina for hiking.  Mother elected to stick around the Visitors’ Center—she has trouble walking sometimes: she runs out of breath for reasons no one has been able to explain so far—and I walked a couple of dozen yards along one of the paths to a photo outlook—essentially at the edge of the glacial Lake Mendenhall, which is where the glacier terminates.  (Mendenhall Glacier feeds Lake Mendenhall, which in turn is the source of the Mendenhall River—the one that runs out into the bay.  Gets monotonous in terms of names, doesn’t it?)  From across the lake, with the binoculars, you can see many of the features of the glacier quite well—though, of course, you only get the features that are at the end of it.  Just as a river is different at one point along its flow than it is at another, so is a glacier.  (I sound a little like Heraclitus of Ephasus, don’t I?)  Nevertheless, I felt I could get enough of a sense of it from an easier vantage point for my needs.  (Remember, I don’t care much for roughing it.  Hiking and climbing aren’t really my cuppa—though I did a little in New Mexico to see some Anasazi caves and even in Quebec to walk across the top of a frozen waterfall.)  I won’t describe the glacier in any detail—it’s much like many of the others we saw earlier, except that this was closer and it terminated at a lake rather than the ocean.  Mendenhall is a hanging glacier (it doesn’t end in the water) and it’s receding—several yards a year. 

Glaciers advance and recede naturally—though they may be helped along by such things as global warming—and the earth is in a part of the cycle that causes many glaciers to recede because we’re actually coming out of a mini-ice age.  The reason glaciers advance is that new snow falls up the mountain in the ice field where they form, pressing the air out of the snow beneath the new fall, eventually pressuring the old snow into nearly airless ice.  (Contrary to what many people think, a glacier is a river of ice, but not a frozen river.  It was never liquid that froze—it was snow that has been compressed into ice over decades of accumulation.)  As new ice is formed in the mountains, gravity pulls the ice that’s formed down the slope.  A glacier recedes, contrarily, because less new snow falls at its source than melts down below—and that’s mostly a natural, and cyclical, phenomenon.  The crystalline structure of the snow-formed ice is why many glaciers are blue or bluish green in appearance: the crystals refract the light so that only the blue spectrum passes through.  Mendenhall is very blue.  At the terminus, where the ice melts, the blue color dissipates and vanishes because the crystalline structure breaks down.  (Icebergs can be blue or green in color, too, but that’s from algae in the ice, not from light refraction.)  In all other respects, Mendenhall is just like the other glaciers in Alaska—it has streaks of moraine (the dirt the ice picks up along its edges as the glacier grinds along) and it pulverizes the bedrock into glacial silt that clouds the waters of the lake—it’s a kind of blue-gray, with huge chunks of ice floating in it (one of which looked exactly like a giant ice canoe)—which, in turn, makes the river opaque (allowing you to distinguish the river as it flows through the bay).  Curiously, if you’re like me, you’d guess that it takes many centuries for all this to happen, from snow above to iceberg below.  If so, you’d be wrong, much to my surprise: the ice that falls off the end of the glacier is only a couple of centuries old.  That suggests that the glacier moves pretty fast, relatively speaking.  I mean, you can’t see it, of course, but you can measure it.  If you put a stake in the glacier at some point, you can come back in several months and see with your naked eye that it has moved down the mountain.

Following the glacier visit, we went to the salmon bake for lunch.  The rain had picked up again (or we returned to it, whichever), which was too bad.  The salmon bake is in a sort of picnic grounds—it’s commercial: you can just go there, pay $5 or whatever it is, and eat your fill—which would be quite lovely in its wooded setting, but we had to stay under the plastic tents which took some of the charm out of it.  Otherwise, the people were very friendly and personable, and they had a folk singer/guitarist to accompany our meal.  And a dog that ran around and barked occasionally—just to make me feel at home, I think!  Except for the salmon, all the fixin’s were at cafeteria tables (albeit, outdoors), and there was plenty of the usual side dishes—cole slaw, potato salad, corn, cornbread, yada-yada-yada—all fine and plentiful.  The salmon was being prepared continuously on a series of large grills, and it was a kind of Alaskan barbeque—there’s a sauce on the grilled salmon that we saw several times elsewhere, too.  It’s slightly sweet, though not unpleasantly so, but I don’t know what it’s ingredients are.  Some people suggested that it contains brown sugar, and that would be possible (though there’s obviously other stuff in it—it’s not that sweet).  Since I love salmon anyway—which is why we went for this particular inclusive excursion—this was all fine with me, except the rain, of course. 

(It was at this lunch that we first heard the news of the blackout in New York, Canada, the East, and the Midwest.  You eat at long tables, taking seats wherever you can find them, and our nearest tablemates turned out to be from another ship and had just heard the news.  It was about 1 p.m. Thursday, 14 August, in Juneau, making it 5 p.m. on the east coast, so our informants didn’t have any details—just the names of the cities that had been hit.  They didn’t even know then that terrorism or sabotage had been ruled out.  We wouldn’t find anything more out until we got back to the ship at 4—8 p.m. in New York—and turned on CNN in our cabin.  I waited until after Governor Pataki’s news conference before I called the young woman who was dog- and apartment-sitting for me—that must have been about 9 p.m. EDT by then.  It turned out that she was providing shelter for her boyfriend, her dad—my friend Kirk—and several of his co-workers from their midtown office who were all stranded in Manhattan.  Apparently my dog was having the time of his life with all the attention!  I told my house-sitter where to find matches, candles, flashlights; they’d already found the old-fashioned, non-electronic phone I had in my living room that worked without Con Ed’s power.)

Between the rain, which had let up some by the time we got back to the ship, and the blackout news, we never did get back out to walk around Juneau.  That was disappointing—though we can’t blame HAL for this one.  It’s a shame, though, because the way all the Inside Passage towns are laid out—along the coast, with very little depth because of the mountain range just above them all—almost everything is within short distances of the ports.  Since we were docked in Juneau, we could go on and off the ship pretty much at will (as long as we were on board when she sailed, of course).  In fact, since the ship’s phones are satellite, and very, very expensive to call from, I hopped back off the ship to make the call to New York from the dock.  (It was only drizzling a little by then.)  Essentially, I could see all of “downtown” Juneau from the Statendam’s moorageit would have been pretty easy to walk around town a little under other circumstances.  (Once again, as would be the case in Ketchikan as well, there were shops after shops, all catering to tourists, and most of them jewelry stores!  There were a few restaurants and bars—including the somewhat famous Red Dog Saloon, a short block up from the ship.)  After I called home and returned to the cabin, it was too close to sailing to go back ashore.  A missed opportunity because of the weather and a technical mishap in the Midwest.  Still, this shore excursion, especially the whale-watching, was worth the time and money.  (Despite the rain and plastic cover, the salmon-bake lunch was both fun and tasty.  Under a sunny sky, it would have been excellent!)

The next morning, Friday, 15 August, the Statendam put in at Ketchikan, a coastal town of just over 7,000 inhabitants.  Like Sitka (and many other Alaskan coast towns), Ketchikan is essentially a fishing village.  It’s also the unofficial totem pole capital of Alaska—there’s a park with scores, maybe even hundreds of them.  We got off the ship in the morning and it was pouring rain—much harder than in Juneau.  We were making up for all that good weather from Anchorage to Sitka, and with a vengeance!  (Unlike Juneau, this downpour did not let up much—the lightest it got was a steady drizzle.  And just to make it all worse, this was the first day of rain in two weeks!  Ketchikan was having a “drought” until the day we arrived.)  But this was our last port of call in Alaska, so we sort of had to suck it up, and plan to walk around a little later anyway.  But first, we had booked a town tour in the same vein as Sitka—expecting a little survey of the town, the totems, and so on, and then some time to look around on our own.  Once again, we had been sandbagged by the descriptions of the shore excursions provided by HAL.  (If we had been a little more secure about what we were doing, we might have opted not to book any excursions in advance—you can do that individually in each port if you want to, or just wander around on your own, or hire a car or otherwise make your own arrangements.  But, unless you have some idea what’s up in each town, that’s hard to plan on, and the HAL-booked excursions, though they’re operated locally by the same companies with which you can book privately, are all guaranteed to meet you at the pier on time and deliver you back to the boat before it sails.  You makes other arrangements, you takes yer chances.  Remember what happened to the couple flightseeing in Denali (Part 1); it’s much harder to rectify that on a boat that’s sailed!)

Anyway, excuses aside, the tour was a drive through town, pointing out as we passed, the famous street-on-stilts (Creek Street, which is where many of the little shops are today—though it used to be the red-light street back when) and the marina with the commercial fishing boats—though most were out at work by this hour.  Our destination was a salmon cannery—like the gold-dredge in Fairbanks (Part 1), it was no longer operating (it had been a Libby cannery), but was now owned by a company that was preserving it as a sort of historic site—which required a short trek through the woods.  Fortunately, the trees created a kind of natural umbrella (and there were a stash of regular ones on the bus, too), but it still wasn’t a big thrill to walk through the wet forest.  Like the gold-dredge, the cannery visit is extensive, with detailed explanations of how the fish is caught—there have been different ways through the history of commercial fishing in Alaska, but I doubt this would really interest you; it didn’t me beyond a modicum—how the fresh fish is prepared for canning (both our guide’s parents—she, herself, is a 5th-grade teacher—worked at the cannery; so did her grandparents), how the canning itself is accomplished, how the cans are steamed (the fish is packed raw and “cooked” in the can), labeled, packed, and shipped.  And, like the gold-dredge tour, we were ushered into the souvenir shop at the end!  (Gotta move them tchotchkes!)  To be fair, the shop does sell a variety of salmon products, from several kinds of canned salmon (there are 5 species of salmon, not to mention the numerous ways you can prepare them all) to salmon pâtés, salmon jerky, salmon chowder, and so on and so forth.  Most of this is quite good, depending on your taste, but we weren’t in the market at this moment.  (Actually, Mom was sort of looking for a kind of canned salmon Dad had brought back from his business trip to Alaska in 1960.  She was never able to find anything she thought might have been the same thing.  We also used to get a packaged smoked salmon chowder from a mail-order house which Mother hasn’t been able to get anymore for some time now—we kept trying to see if there was any equivalent around.  In the end, though, carrying that kind of thing back home just seemed too much hassle.)  Salmon’s really big in Alaska, as you might gather!  In fact, the king salmon is the official state fish.  (We did see the salmon running upstream to spawn and lots and lots of dead salmon, the aftermath of that activity.) 

Oh, and one other little detail from the cannery tour.  One of the ways fish were caught in the past was trapping.  It’s a practice that was prohibited by the state constitution in 1959 when Alaska gained statehood, but a fish trap is essentially a maze of nets out in the ocean into which the fish are lured.  In the center of this net labyrinth is a tiny, floating cabin in which lives the trap master—all alone at sea, 24/7.  Well, they had one of these little cabins—they’re no more than 6′ by 6′ at most, with a little bed, a shelf, and a wood stove for heat and cooking—in the cannery.  It was just sitting in one of the big rooms (the disused cannery space is rented to local fishermen to store and repair their nets and equipment—this room had piles of nets stored), a large wooden box, really.  As we approached it to leave the building—it was sort of near the exit—the door flings open and a young man (a teenager, obviously a highschooler) bursts out with a pistol in his hand.  He’s wearing trousers held up by suspenders over an old-fashioned undershirt.  He starts a spiel—he’s sorry to have frightened us, but he thought we were fish pirates.  He’d been robbed a few nights earlier, you see.  Then he tells the story of how he came to be trap master and what his work is like—it’s a little performance (and not bad acting, either, all told), amusing and kind of clever, all in all.  Kind of a funny summer job, though.  (Later in the shop, the kid was working the counter, so I guess he has other responsibilities, too.)

So after the cannery, which wasn’t uninteresting but, like the gold-dredge, was an insufficient glimpse of the town as a whole, we drove back down into Ketchikan (the cannery’s several miles outside of town, as you might imagine—it is a factory, after all) and stopped briefly at a place called Saxman Native Village.  Now, my understanding was that Saxman was an artificial “village” set up as a sort of living diorama—with native craftsmen and dancers living in houses sort of the way people “live” in Plimouth Plantation, or maybe Colonial Williamsburg (though people do actually live in Williamsburg—they just contract to dress and behave as if they were in the 18th century).  I thought it was a way to see native arts and crafts in process, see some more totems (they’re really everywhere in Alaska—you see plenty of them, both old and new, original and reproductions).  It turns out that all there really is is a clan house, which you can’t go into if there’s anything going on inside (it’s authentic in the sense that the local beaver clan actually uses it for ceremonials and rites) and a large workshop where several native carvers are making totems, masks, and other objects.  There are, of course, several totems standing outside, too.  But the “village” turns out to be regular, ordinary modern homes—they just are inhabited by Indians!  It’s like a subdivision of Ketchikan, reserved for Tlingits who want to live there.  (It’s not a reservation or anything, though I don’t know if the homes are subsidized—like a Manhattan Plaza for Native Americans.) 

Now, the clan house, which is traditionally also a residence for several families—sort of like a big dormitory—as well as a ceremonial structure, is all painted on the outside, in that same Northwest Indian motif that I like so much (except, of course, it’s a much bigger scale—duuh!), identifying the clan, and there are naturally totems outside as entrance posts, so it isn’t a complete waste to see it.  And it’s always interesting to watch the artists and carvers work, but these guys were especially closed-mouthed and unresponsive.  There were two carvers working that day, and when people asked questions—not even rude or stupid questions, which you could understand might turn the artists off; they were appreciative and honest questions about the work—one guy never opened his mouth and the other gave some vague, short answers.  There was also a young boy, the nephew or grandson of one of the carvers, and he had a potlatch mask on display—one he wore at the ceremony, not one he had made.  Someone asked if it would be all right to model it for us, and when his uncle/grandfather (I just don’t remember—it wasn’t unclear at the time) said there was no reason not to, the boy, about 11 or 12, just didn’t much want to do it.  (He eventually did, briefly and sort of grudgingly.)

A potlatch, if you don’t already know, is a ceremony of thanksgiving.  It can be for any number of reasons—to celebrate a birthday, a wedding, an engagement, a recovery from illness, or just gratitude for something good—but the person doing the celebrating arranges the potlatch, and gives gifts to everyone who comes—food or crafts and such, though today I think they give store-bought stuff, too.  Part of the ceremony includes dancing, and the dancers wear these immense masks—they’re worn on top of the head, like a hat, rather than over the face—which are not only very large (and held in place by the dancer’s hands; they’re way too big to balance on their own), but elaborately carved, painted, and decorated (with feathers, cloth, and any other medium that’s available).  The one the boy had, a bird—a thunderbird, I think—with elaborate feathers as well as the painted carving, included eyes that moved and a beak that opened and shut.  As to why these folks all seemed reticent, considering they were working in a place intended to be on display to the public, we never figured out.  (I talked to other native artists later that day, in their studio-shops in town, and they were quite voluble.  The native artist on the ship also liked to talk about his work—though, of course, that’s part of his gig, to explain his culture to others like us; he works for the state.  He also teaches traditional art to Indian children.  One of the Ketchikan artists I spoke to was a modern artist who used the traditional iconography in his non-traditional works.  He had one beautiful glass plate, for instance—something new he had begun experimenting with—that incorporated an eagle motif that was sort of his trademark, appearing as it did in his prints and lithographs—and his T-shirts and totebags, too.  I’d have bought that plate if it hadn’t been too big for my apartment.  I even asked if he planned to make any more like it, but smaller—he’s got a website, and I might yet check in to see if he does.)

So, Saxman Village turned out to be less than I had expected—maybe because of the tour operator or maybe because it just isn’t how it’s described.  After the somewhat frustrating visit to the workshop, we stood in the rain briefly—under umbrellas, to be sure—and looked at the totems while the guide pointed out the interesting aspects of these particular poles. 

Totems, in case you don’t already know, serve several different purposes—none of them religious, by the way.  Some people apparently think totem poles are kinds of idols, but they’re not.  They’re story-tellers.  Some tell the history of the clan or the village or the family for which it was made; some tell legends; some commemorate a historical event, either from the distant past or a contemporary one; some memorialize a dead person or honor a living one; and some are actually funeral totems, with the deceased’s remains in a box incorporated into the pole.  Another fact that isn’t widely known is that totems are seldom old—the wood just rots and the paint weathers eventually, and they are replaced constantly by new ones—either replicas of the old one or a new one with a new purpose.  It is still a living art, though now the artists who carve them get well known and are often commissioned to carve poles for private or public display.  Parks all over Alaska and British Columbia, for instance, often have many totems ranging in age from half a century old to a couple of years; new ones get added and old ones are removed from time to time.  In many cases, the explanatory plaques for the poles give the name of the artists who carved them—like any other public art.  (The names of the carvers were on the totems in Vancouver’s Stanley Park, just like Henry Moore’s name was on a sculpture in Queen Elizabeth Park.  Only fair, I guess.) 

It’s also true that though there is traditional iconography for many of the figures that go into a totem—the clan symbols have the same kind of identifying elements as, say, Greek gods (if it’s a female with a bow and arrows, it’s Diana; winged sandals, it’s Hermes) or Christian saints (arrows in his side, it’s Sebastian)—the form of a totem is pretty much up to each individual artist.  It doesn’t work like hieroglyphics—if you know the symbols, you can interpret the story.  A knowledgeable viewer can make good guesses, but without the input from the artist, you can’t be sure.  In other words, they’re more like contemporary works of art than tribal icons that are eternally the same to the initiated.  The ones on display outdoors in public spaces aren’t particularly old, as I said, and they were never intended to last forever like Greek statues or Roman arches.  However, because they’ve become recognized as cultural and artistic treasures, old ones are now preserved indoors, often in museums (but sometimes, just in a town hall or cultural center).  In Vancouver, we made a special point of going out to the Museum of Anthropology, which is part of the University of British Columbia and is way outside the main part of town, because it has a remarkable collection of totems and other native art which is old.  (Few things made of wood are really, really old, of course.  We’re talking a century, a century-and-a-half, tops here.)  Much of the paint had weathered off the works at the Museum of Anthropology, and they are sometimes decaying in places, but they are both aesthetically striking and very much like the ones being made today. 

Obviously, some of the figures in newer ones represent people who’d never appear in ancient times—Lincoln, for instance, and Seward—but the more traditional figures are very alike in the old carvings and the new ones.  It’s truly still a living art tradition.  (The modern artists do use metal carving tools—though they’re modern adaptations of the original stone tools—and they paint with modern paints instead of the traditional organic colors—though most artists still use the hues their ancestors used.  I never saw any totems painted in pink or violet, though in some of the art and craft shops there were other kinds of carvings in unlikely colors.)  As striking as the totems are when you see them displayed, I was less taken with them as pieces of art I might want in my home (they do make small ones for souvenir and art consumption, and some are as well-carved as any of the other art—though there’s also a lot of junk, turned out by the hundreds) than I was with some of the other forms.  (I already have a mask—and I never saw one, aside from museum displays, that I liked better than the one I bought in Seattle anyway—but I began looking at drums, paddles, and “plaques”—which is what I eventually bought.)

After the stop at Saxman, then, the tour was over and we went back to the pier.  It was still raining, but since this was our last port in Alaska, Mom and I decided we had to walk around a little anyway.  Like the other ports, most of the town is splayed out along the waterfront, right near the pier.  We took our umbrella (we came prepared, you see) and set out to look around a bit.  Once again, it was store upon store, mostly souvenir and jewelry, except along Creek Street (the former brothel street, which is built on stilts—it’s not a vehicle street—over . . . well, a creek, wouldn’t ya know).  The little shops along this funny little street were a little different.  There were a couple of actual artist’s studio-galleries, a bookstore—and a former brothel called Dolly’s House that’s a museum.  (There’s a greeter, or whatever she is, who hangs out at the doorway, dressed like a madam, and invites—entices?—passers-by in.  At least I think it’s a museum!)  Anyway, this is where I saw the glass plate I mentioned before—in the gallery of an artist who does modern work but uses his native imagery as a vehicle.  His prints were very nice, and if I hadn’t bought a print in Taos—and if I thought I had any more wall space left for something like that—I might have brought one home as my souvenir.  The plate, which was blue and red in a stylized eagle pattern which, as I said, was sort of the artist’s trademark, was beautiful, but far too big for my apartment, as I told you.  He also had some pottery items and some sculptures—as well as the T-shirts, bags, sweatshirts, and such that were obviously his tourist items, though they had his identifiable imagery as the design.  They’re probably what pay his rent—and they weren’t at all bad for what they were.  Hell, Keith Haring made postcards and buttons even after he became famous and stopped doing his subway panels.  Art for the pedestrian: Can’t afford a painting, buy a pin! 

(You know the story about Picasso?  He got a letter from an admirer with a check for $100 enclosed.  The letter explained that the writer loved Picasso’s work, but couldn’t afford any of his paintings or sculptures.  Could the artist do something for the writer for $100?  So . . . Picasso endorsed the check.  Badum-bum.)

Well, I never found my absolute right souvenir.  I had an idea what I wanted, in a general sense, but I never saw the exact thing.  It looked like I was going to have to get lucky in Vancouver—a lot of the native artworks we saw in Alaska were made by British Columbia artists; it all crossed the borders anyway, so I figured I could just as easily find an Alaskan piece in Vancouver.  (When I was in Taos, New Mexico, which is an artists’ colony anyway, I passed up a nice print I saw in one gallery because the artist, though a Native American, was from Colorado.  I wanted a New Mexico artist—and found him in the best of all locations, in terms of the appropriateness: at Taos Pueblo.  He was a contemporary artist who was a Taos Indian—the shop was his mother’s house, though his year-round home and studio is in Hollywood, Florida.)  The rain finally got to us, and it was getting close enough to sailing, so we headed back toward the ship, detouring a little past some other shops on the way.  These were the usual tourist shops, however, and though there were often a few pieces in all of them, I never saw The One.  (My mask was ultimately from a tourist schlock shop—I shopped around in Seattle and the same artists were available at the same price range in both art galleries and souvenir stores—even at the Space Needle, the ultimate tourist destination.  This one shop—a real junk shop in all other respects, had a display of a few dozen masks and totems, and they happened to have the one I liked.  You never know.  As a matter of fact, the carving I finally got in Vancouver, I got in another junk shop after shopping in all the galleries that specialized in native art, and even the museum shop.  In Vancouver, though, the prices varied greatly.)  Anyway, we ended up back on board after a somewhat disappointing day—though not entirely, as usual. 

[Next stop: Vancouver, B.C.  The last part of our trip to the Pacific Northwest was a visit to the largest city on Canada’s west coast where the Statendam ended its voyage through the Inside Passage.  Part 4 of “The Last Frontier” will cover our stop-over there and our final trip back home to New York City.  Be sure to come back to ROT for the (exciting?) conclusion to my Alaska travelogue whenever I decide to publish it.  (I have no predetermined schedule for this series, so you’ll just have to take a shot in the dark.)]


25 April 2014

'The Heir Apparent'

On Friday evening, my theater companion, Diana, and I met at the Classic Stage Company’s East 13th Street home to see the New York première of David Ives’s The Heir Apparent.  I’ve seen a couple of Ives’s plays, many of which débuted at CSC (New Jerusalem, 2008; Venus in Fur, 2010) and had fundamental problems with them.  New Jerusalem, which is an attempt to dramatize the synagogue hearing that ended with the excommunication and expulsion from Amsterdam of the 17th-century Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza, was densely philosophical and “all the talk provided for a static atmosphere,” and Venus in Fur, which I saw in a Washington, D.C., revival, was what I call a “phony drama”: “it’s ordained by the playwright, not organic to the circumstances.”  (My ROT report on Venus was posted on 11 July 2011, but the production of New Jerusalem predated this blog so I’ve posted an old report on it on 20 April.  Ives is also known for his adaptation of the Broadway première of Mark Twain’s Is He Dead? in 2007-08.)  

The Heir Apparent is Ives’s adaptation of Le Légataire universel (1708), a farce in verse by French playwright Jean-François Regnard (1655-1709).  The Heir Apparent was commissioned by the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., and first produced in 2011 under the direction of STC’s Artistic Director, Michael Kahn (who sent Ives Regnard’s play).  (There were earlier English versions of Légataire universel for the stage, first in 1769 by Thomas King, 1730–1805, the English actor, under the title Wit’s Last Stake and then again by Irish actor and dramatist Charles Macklin, 1699-1797, with the title Will and No Will.  A literal translation by English writer Richard Aldington was published as The Residuary Legatee in 1923.  Ives’s adaptation of Heir Apparent was published by Smith & Kraus in 2011.)   The CSC production, staged by John Rando, started previews on 28 March and opened on 9 April for a limited run; it was scheduled to close on 4 May but has been extended through the 11th. 

Regnard (his name’s related to the French word for fox, renard, which Ives found fitting), the son of a wealthy Paris merchant, led an adventurous youth devoted to pleasure and travel.  (In 1678, young Regnard, returning from Italy, was captured by pirates and held in Algiers until ransomed.)  Back in Paris, he took up writing largely as a leisure pursuit and his first efforts were farces for the Comédie-Italienne.  His later, more substantial works for the Comédie-Française, the House of Molière, retain the same Italianate spirit laced with recognizable echoes of his more famous predecessor.  (Influenced by Commedia dell’Arte, many of Regnard’s characters are takes on the stock figures of the Italian comedies: in The Heir Apparent, for instance, Geronte is Pantalone, Lisette is Colombina, Crispin is Harlequin, Isabella and Eraste are Innamorati, and the lawyer Scruple is a Dottore.  If you know your Commedia, you’ll spot them immediately.)  In Le Joueur (The Gambler, 1696) and Le Légataire universel, Regnard refuses to be censorious about the most callous, unsavory behavior.  No moralist, the farceur’s detached, uncomfortably frank view of a corrupt society is depicted with boundless vivacity and lively comic plotting.  

Ives described his source as “worldly, utterly honest, satirical without being condemnatory, ofttimes bawdy, sometimes scatological, now and then macabre and it craves jokes as a drunkard craves his pint.”  The playwright has called his version of Légataire a “translaptation” because, though Ives sticks pretty close to Regnard’s original story line—and the rhyming couplets—he inserts 21st-century humor and contemporary references couched in modern English.  (The New York Post’s Elisabeth Vincentelli described Ives’s process as putting the play “through his usual wash-and-spin cycle.”)  

Challenged by a woman in the audience, Peter Marks wrote his Washington Post review of Kahn’s première in rhyme, and I can’t resist quoting his synopsis of the plot:

The tale is of a tightwad who
Has never parted with a sou.
The greedy rest conspire to fill
The dole-out sections of his will.

To spell it out a little more: The rich old miser, Geronte, eternally at death’s door, is liable to seizures and violent bowel movements, courtesy of the potions Lisette, the old skinflint’s down-to-earth maid (potty jokes are rife).  Furthermore, he’s also burdened with the unwanted presence of rapacious relatives and servants who just want him to kick off after he’s written his will to their benefits.  Eraste, Geronte’s poor but handsome nephew, plots with Crispin, the young man’s crafty servant, and Lisette, to get his uncle’s money before Geronte dies so the young swain can marry Isabelle, the daughter of Madame Argante (whose name appropriately sounds like the French for ‘money’ as she’s as avaricious as Geronte is stingy).  As all this skullduggery, which involves a lot of reversals, twists, disguises, impersonations, and other tomfoolery, unfolds—or unravels, if you wish—geriatric Geronte, even as he’s shuffling off the mortal coil, spends most of his time lusting after young (and need I add beauteous?) Isabelle, greedy Eraste’s beloved.  (As may be obvious, Regnard was considered a successor to Molière.  Heir Apparent, at least in Ives’s hands, is The Miser meets The Imaginary Invalid meets The Misanthrope—with scatological humor.)  The main point of Ives’s rendition (and, I gather, Regnard’s, too) is . . . well, to populate the stage with zany, often ribald, buffoonery.  It’s just silliness made even sillier by Ives’s anachronisms and incongruities, with references to Godzilla, high colonics, Cadillacs, and soccer moms, among others.

That, of course, is the entire rationale for doing Heir Apparent, a play with no ulterior motives and nothing on its mind but good, dirty fun.  Oh, Ives inserts some comments about socialism and the 99 percent near the end—from the mouth of Madame Argante, who, it seems, was something of an anti-capitalist hippie in her youth—but it’s perfunctory and has no echoes anywhere else in the play.  (I assume Regnard didn’t try the same thing—his rep is that his plays were totally without social significance or moral judgments.  The Comédie-Italienne was closed by the king for its impolitic sentiments, but Regnard wasn’t implicated and moved over to the more prestigious Comédie-Française and greater success.)  Some of the jokes, aided by Ives’s rhyming couplets that make use of plenty of 21st-century language and references, try a bit too hard, but the second act had me tittering and guffawing pretty continuously.  (The poop jokes are so constant that a scan of Ives’s script would probably result in a complete lexicon of synonyms for shit.  Unless you want your preteens to bring the vocabulary home, you probably shouldn’t take them along to the theater for this show.  They’ll love it—you might not.)  

I hate to make a generalization on such scant evidence, but if pressed, I’d have to conclude that for me, Ives’s adaptations are better fare than his original plays.  I found both his other works forced and a little ponderous, as if in both instances Ives was showing off his erudition.  Heir Apparent, in contrast, is light and sparkling (still, with a touch of intellectuality in some of the more knowing references).  Certainly, a lot of that is due to the source material—from what I gather, Regnard’s writing is effervescent (some critics even say his verse is better than Molière’s), while Spinoza’s philosophy is notoriously dense and Masoch’s novel is . . . well, he did give his name to masochism, after all.  Of course, I’d certainly need to see (or at least read) more of Ives’s adaptations (Georges Feydeau's A Flea in Her Ear, 2006; Pierre Corneille's The Liar, 2010; The School For Lies, 2011, from Molière’s The Misanthrope) before I make a final judgment, but from what I know now, this is how I feel.  

In the end, of course, a farce like both Regnard’s original and Ives’s “translaptation” depend for success on stage on the production and the performances.  John Rando and CSC have put together an absolutely fabulous rendition of The Heir Apparent.  Paxton Whitehead, Broadway and Off-Broadway veteran, makes a perfect Geronte, befuddled and constantly diarrheic, his voice a gurgle of phlegm (and I-don’t-know-what-else) throughout the first three-quarters of the play (I’m not sure I want to know how Whitehead accomplishes this), but transforming into a clear and strong baritone in the end.  Whitehead likewise morphs from moribund, geriatric Geronte into a hale and clear-headed older gentleman in the last minutes of the play. The transition, aided marvelously by David C. Woolard’s stunning costumes and Paul Huntley’s picture-perfect wigs (about which more shortly), is accomplished nearly instantaneously: Whitehead goes off stage for his costume change as the near-dead Geronte and returns in moments as the more vigorous one.  (Getting in and out of those 18th-century costumes is a challenge in itself—believe me, I’ve done it—much less doing it fast!  Several of the gags depend on quick changes, including a cross-dressing shift.)  

Possibly the most delightful surprise in an altogether excellent cast is Carson Elrod’s Crispin, the resourceful servant whom Broadway World’s Michael Dale called a “versatile clown” who leaves “no set piece unchewed.”  I don’t know Elrod’s work (he played the same part in Heir Apparent’s Washington première three years ago), but he has quite a varied résumé, from contemporary farce (Noises Off) to Absurdism (Waiting for Godot) to Shakespeare (The Tempest, Measure for Measure, All’s Well That Ends Well).  I suppose it goes without saying that he handles the period comedy and style superbly, but what clinched his performance for me was that he blends the anachronisms and incongruities that Ives clearly loves into a nearly seamless performance with the fewest possible gear shifts.  It doesn’t hurt, in addition that Elrod does a more than passable impression of Whitehead’s feeble Geronte that suggests the actor’s a pretty good mimic on top of his other acting talents.  (I wonder how he did with Floyd King’s Geronte at STC, which I assume, knowing King’s work, would have been quite different from Whitehead’s.)  As Crispin crows, not erroneously: “Well, I don’t care what anybody says, / I am a one-man Comédie-Française!”  (On Huffington Post, reviewer Fern Siegel quipped, “He speaks no more than the truth.”)  Incidentally, while Elrod’s doing Geronte, Whitehead makes a reappearance and the two identically-dressed actors perform a wonderful mirror routine reminiscent of Harpo and Groucho Marx from Duck Soup.  (Director Rondo acknowledged that the Marx Brothers comedies were “very important” influences on his “great love for comedy.”)

Another wonderful turn is offered by David Pittu as the lawyer, Scruple.  His arrival is telegraphed long before he appears so we know that he’s very short—but I’ve seen Pittu on stage before (Gabe McKinley’s CQ/CX, 2012; John Guare’s 3 Kinds of Exile, 2013) and he’s a man of perfectly ordinary stature.  When Scruple finally enters, however, he doesn’t come up any higher than everyone else’s waist!  There stands Pittu in his long, brown Louis XIV peruke, wearing a long, black attorney’s robe, his buckled shoes barely poking out from under the hem.  He’s performing the role on his knees, surely a physically difficult posture, with the character’s shoes attached to the actor’s kneecaps!  (Is this what my college theater prof used to call “suffering for your art,” I wonder?)  Well, of course, his entrance is a sight gag that elicits an immediate uproar in the house.  But Pittu’s performance is much more than just a sight gag.  He makes Scruple (in Regnard’s original, the character’s merely a notary, but what a suitably ironic name for a lawyer!) a figure of both fun and—would you believe—sympathy.  Every reference to height, even if it’s not meant to be directed to him—is taken with supreme umbrage, with ever-increasingly pained expressions and objections.  All the time, of course, we know he’s being hoodwinked by Eraste, Lisette, and Crispin (disguised as Geronte), but Scruple, in the face of nearly impossible impediments (this is where the real Geronte turns up, among other hijinks), plows ahead, doing his due diligence and taking down, as we later hear, every word Crispin-as-Geronte speaks.  The scene as a whole is riotous, but Elrod and Pittu top everyone without for a moment violating the spirit of the barely-controlled pandemonium.  (I don’t know how he accomplishes it, but Pittu doesn’t move like a man shuffling on his knees, but like one walking with very short legs.  And once again, Woolard’s costume design comes to the aid of the actor because even though Scruple’s robe has a bit of a train, it hardly seems long enough to hide what I knew had to be back there but, try as I might, I couldn’t detect: the rest of Pittu’s legs.  I know theater is magic, but the last time I was this astonished by technical achievement was back in 1985 when I saw Louise Page’s Salonika during which a dead soldier rose up from beneath a beach of actual sand with no evidence of a tunnel or a trapdoor under the stage.  Before that, I was maybe seven or eight at a production of The Wizard of Oz when, after the tornado, the lights came up on Dorothy's house with the Wicked Witch’s legs sticking out from under one side.)

The entire ensemble, as I said, is excellent, and Claire Karpen’s Lisette, Dave Quay’s Eraste, Amelia Pedlow’s Isabelle, and Suzanne Bertish’s Madame Argante are all marvelously drawn characters even as they’re recognizable types (especially if you know any Molière at all).  Karpen comes off as a bit modern, though I don’t know if that’s a deliberate choice or not, and it actually works fine in Ives’s context—what with his own anachronisms and all.  The character’s written very knowingly, which suggests that she’s meant to be a little bit country and little bit rock ’n’ roll anyway.  Quay has the appearance of someone a little long in the tooth for a young innamorato (though I don’t think the actor actually is): he’s a tad stocky and his blond hair’s receding a mite, which makes Eraste look as if he’s been waiting a long time to get Geronte’s dough so he can marry Isabelle.  This, in turn, makes Quay seem more desperate to secure his inheritance, especially when his decrepit uncle sets his sights on Eraste’s beloved.  (This also seems to render his passion for Isabelle a little perfunctory, as if he doesn’t so much love her as need her complicity to gain Geronte’s million francs—but I’m not sure this effect is intentional.)  The partnership among Eraste, Crispin, and Lisette, though clearly led by the valet, is a mini-ensemble within the greater one: they do seem to read one another’s thoughts—as demonstrated when Crispin sets up the impersonation of a distant, hog-farming niece who’s come to claim Geronte’s fortune and Eraste shows up in 18th-century French country drag snorting like a pig, followed by an identically-clad Isabelle, and finally Crispin (with the addition of a snout).  Lisette emcees the melee.

Pedlow’s Isabelle is a take on the standard ingénue, which is precisely how she’s written.  Pedlow brings a contemporary knowingness to the girl, who’s not above a little coercion or strategic whining to further her ends.  The character’s essentially the pawn of the plot—Eraste must gain Geronte’s estate in order to marry her, Geronte himself plans to marry her, Argante bargains her daughter’s hand as a way to get some of Geronte’s wealth, and so on—but Pedlow’s not averse to a little “queening” now and then to assert herself.  Madame Argante is the only part in Heir Apparent who’s not a Commedia character, though she is familiar from later comedy of manners; in 200 years, she’ll be Lady Bracknell in rhyming couplets.  Billed as a “battleax,” Bertish plays her with little sense of humor, a stern visage at all times.  (She’s also something of a mercenary Miss Havisham.)  Until the mercurial shift at the end, when we learn of her hippie-ish youth, Bertish’s Argante is all business—and her business is the acquisition of money, particularly Geronte’s.  If she can get her hands on it by marrying Isabelle to Eraste, all the better, but she’ll marry her young daughter to ancient Geronte without Isabelle’s consent if that’s what it takes.  Bertish carries herself regally (perhaps more precise to say imperiously), made even haughtier by the tall “Fontange” wig she wears and widened by her farthingale, altogether giving her Argante an out-sized and severe presence on stage.  (Isabelle’s gown hangs more softly in contrast with her mother’s hard-edged silhouette of cash-green.)  Madame Argante’s transformation in the last scene of the play is less believable than Geronte’s—he’s at least been in a trance for a scene or two—and I’d be curious to see how Regnard wrote the play’s ending, but if Bertish doesn’t solve the problems of how an elegant money-grubber reverts to a socialist-leaning Occupier (or, for that matter, how she evolved from that into what we’d seen for most of Heir Apparent), the actress at least proceeds straight ahead without a hitch, as if the transformation were perfectly natural.  The politics, as I said before, is forced here, but Bertish just ignores that and forges on with commitment.

I’ve been commenting all along now on how well Woolard’s costume design enhanced Ives’s script and Rando’s staging, even the cast’s acting.  It’s probably almost unnecessary to say any more, but I’ll sum up by declaring that the designer made really terrific use of the TDF Costume Collection and his other sources (I gather CSC didn’t build the period clothes for this show) to put together the look of the production.  I mentioned Madame Argante’s green dress (and yes, I know francs aren’t green—but the audience is American and here green means cash), but Geronte’s spiffy new outfit at the end of the play, his wedding togs, is a silver suit of tunic and breeches, not quite lamé but suggestive of that, that also recalls money (and here, the French does parallel the symbol—money in French is argent, which also means ‘silver’).  Geronte now sports a brand-new peruke, also a silver gray, of elaborate curls and ringlets as styled by wig-designer Huntley.  

In contrast with the elegance of the final costume changes, though not so much of Geronte’s earlier attire, John Lee Beatty’s set is more like a storage room for discarded period furniture than a rich man’s sitting room.  (TheaterMania’s Zachary Stewart likened the set to “a Williamsburg antique shop”—not the Brooklyn neighborhood, I suspect, but the restored colonial town in Virginia.)  The theater’s brick back wall is exposed, as if Geronte hadn’t wanted to pay for paneling, and the décor is more jumble than Neo-classical orderliness.  We know that the old skinflint has kept his very first centime (on which keep your eye, by the way), but Beatty’s made it look like he’s closer to a hoarder than a mere miser: an 18th-century Charles Foster Kane, perhaps.  The lighting, which melds the whole together successfully, is by Japhy Weideman.

Rando, who seems somewhat inarticulate in the interview published in the CSC newsletter, has coordinated all these elements admirably.  He’s worked with Ives numerous times since the 1990s (Ancient History/English Made Simple, 1996; Mere Mortals and Others, 1997; Polish Joke, 2003; All in the Timing, 2013) and on musicals, especially those presented by Encores!, where Ives, a script adapter, introduced him.  They’re obviously on the same wave-length, and it shows in the stage results.  The film comedies which Rando admires, aside from the Marx Brothers’, include Woody Allen’s and the Peter Sellers-Blake Edwards Pink Panther movies.  The truth, of course, is that not all artists can speak glibly about their own work, but since, especially in theater, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, not the describing, Rando acquits himself and serves both Ives and his cast splendidly.  Regnard and Ives created a clockwork plot, with gears within gears, all spinning in different directions, though toward the same end, and Rando keeps it all on course and in rhythm (not to forget rhyme) with a nicely light touch.  

The press was surprisingly mixed—and a little light, a number of usual outlets not having published (at least not on line).  In the New York Post, Elisabeth Vincentelli opened her notice by declaring that The Heir Apparentstrains so much to be funny, it’s exhausting—if it were a jacket, it would burst its buttons,” comparing the play unfavorably with Ives’s previous writing in The School for Lies and Venus in Fur.  Complaining that “the more-is-less nature” of the production “grows wearisome,” Vincentelli blamed Rando’s “manic” direction.  Saying that David Pittu is wasted on a “one-joke role,” Vincentelli remarked that he may need “a post-show massage”—concluding that the “audience could use one, too.”  On the other hand, the New York Times’s Charles Isherwood described the play as “boisterous, bawdy and endlessly funny,” and the production as “directed with meticulous abandon by John Rando.”  “It is indeed excessively good,” the Timesman proclaimed, and the “entire cast excels.”  In the Wall Street Journal, Terry Teachout characterized Ives’s play as “brilliant” and “elegantly wrought.”  The WSJ reviewer said “Ives's couplets glitter with close-packed virtuosity,” the CSC “cast is perfect, and John Rando's staging is a slapsticky riot.”  

Among the weeklies, the New Yorker reviewer wrote in Goings On About Town,” “Ives’s baroque rhymes often delight,” and, “The director John Rando sets a giddy, hurtling pace, crashing past unlikely verse and doubtful plot points.”  In his Village Voice notice, Tom Sellar dubbed Ives’s adaptation a “comic jewel” that “brims with contemporary wit.”  Concluded Sellar, “The production, directed with exactness by John Rando, is a delight with twin pleasures: the razor-sharp wit of Ives's flowing verse and the cast's gusto.”  Entertainment Weekly’s Jason Clark averred that, having “struck gold” in his past work, Ives “merely strikes bronze” with Heir Apparent, a “madcap laffer” in which Clark wished “more of [the jokes and gestures] actually stuck.”  Clark’s complaint was that the “machine-gun ratio of jokes to spoken lines is about three to one,” but he found that “so many of them pivot to the scatological, the result becomes more wearying than cheering.”  The EW review-writer called the cast “game,” but felt that they are “a bit over directed by John Rando.”  His final word was, “The Heir Apparent strikes the same chord a bit too often.” 

In the cyber press, Fern Siegel of the Huffington Post called Ives’s version of The Heir Apparent a “madcap” and “fast-paced” “fanciful delight” that “proves loads of fun.”  Director Rando “has timed the action perfectly,” Siegel said, and “his hilarious cast is uniformly tops.”  On Broadway World, Michael Dale called Ives’s script “nimbly penned” and the CSC presentation a “rollicking production.”  The BWW writer concluded, “Bouncing back and forth between highbrow wit and lowbrow crudeness . . ., The Heir Apparent is divinely silly and a heck of a good time.”  Zachary Stewart wrote in his TheaterMania review that Heir Apparent is “an irreverent laugh fest with more than a few moments of sublime linguistic brilliance.”  The “off-the-wall ludicrous” references and the “eloquent toilet humor” help make “for a zanier experience,” TM’s Stewart said, and the cast “lean into this cartoonish reality” in a “well-choreographed lunacy” which Rando “perfectly paces.”  Concluded Stewart, “You'll leave this one with a big grin on your face.”  On CurtainUp, Elyse Sommer called Heir Apparent “an old-fashioned caper” in which “we see [Ives’s] own spirit superimposed.”  Rando directed, Sommer felt, “fast and furiously, but not too fast to land every laugh.”  The technical production is “wonderful” and Sommer graded the whole cast “A or A+.”  It all adds up to “a full-featured, enjoyable entertainment for their ticket” price, concluded Sommer.

Now, I saved one published review for last because . . . well, you’ll see.  I remarked above that Peter Marks had met a Washington theatergoer’s challenge to write his Washington Post review in verse, and when I surveyed the New York notices, lo and behold, what did I discover?  Adam Feldman of Time Out New York had done likewise.  Instead of spot-quoting his review, I’m just going to reprint it here to close my report.  Enjoy:

When rusting classics need repolished lives,
Is anyone fitter than David Ives?
He loves to dip his quill where others daren’t,
Most newly in Regnard’s The Heir Apparent.
With rhyming verse, Ives kicks out all the jams,
Pentameter agleam with bright iambs,
And happily creates for all to see
A comic marvel at the C.S.C.
The 18th-century plot—already a
Tad familiar from commedia—
Concerns young lovers, lawyers and misers
And servants who serve as their advisers.
But here the stock is flavored to a T
With vibrant comic ingenuity.
A zippy Carson Elrod heads the cast
As Crispin, crafty valet of Eraste
(Dave Quay), a callow but handsome fella.
Amelia Pedlow plays Isabella,
Who loves Eraste, but who, despite her want,
Obeys her mom: the mean Madame Argante
(Ripe Bertish), who will only have her wed
To someone with a luxury of bread.
The old Geronte (ace Whitehead) fits that bill
And so Eraste must bend his uncle’s will
To get the ancient pincher to agree
To leave him all his dough as legacy.
This summary can only just begin
To limn the joys of Ives’s loony bin.
There’s John Lee Beatty’s rich set, and—oh
Yes!—whip-quick direction by John Rando.
Go see the play and you’ll surely concur
This Heir Apparent is a farce majeure.

Okay, Feldman’s not as clever at doggerel as Ives, but, hey—it’s like the dancing bear.  It’s not how well he dances, it’s that he dances it at all!