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!

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