In these troubled modern times, one has to find things to be thankful about. I, for one, am thankful that Artistic Director Michael Kahn has dug up another dusty old script from the bottom of the back of the Shakespeare Theatre bookshelves — this time, a French comedy from 1708 called Le Legataire Universel — and handed it to David Ives. The partnership, it turns out, is something of a revelation, and DC’s a lucky city to catch it in its emerging days.
Not only is Ives one of America’s most brilliant living playwrights, he’s also one of our youngest at heart. And over the past few years, his contemporary touch upon well-worn pages has sparked some nifty chemical reactions. Under the pressure of Ives’s mischievous pen, even the oldest texts, crumbled by years of neglect, seem to snap together in fresh assembly.
This season’s result, re-named The Heir Apparent, isn’t just a translation — some of the plot of Jean-Francois Regnard’s original play has been rolled up and kneaded into newer, funnier, more interesting shapes. Nor is it just an adaptation, so closely does the core story adhere to the original. Really, it’s both — a rascally remix project that lets everyone have their eighteenth-century cake and eat it too, stuffed as it is with 21st-century in-jokes, pop culture references, and modern idioms. Ives calls it “translaptation.” Audiences, I think, will call it a hit.
Under Kahn’s direction, the action kicks to life in a grand Parisian mansion owned by the decrepit, miserly Geronte (Floyd King, goggle-eyed and supremely funny), whose massive inheritance would prove useful to his nephew Eraste (Andrew Veenstra), who plans to marry the lovely Isabelle (Meg Chambers Steedle). But when Eraste and his clever manservant Crispin (Carson Elrod) realize that Geronte’s about to spend the money on a wedding of his own that very afternoon – and that he himself plans to marry Isabelle – the two youngsters jump to action, hatching a feverish, impromptu plan to trick their scrooge-y uncle out of his gold and his bride-to-be.
With the help of crafty maid Lisette (Kelly Hutchinson), hijinks ensue across Alexander Dodge’s wondrously decorated stage, and through a cascade of panics, pratfalls, and some dubious disguises, the self-proclaimed heirs apparent begin to pull the wool over Geronte’s suspicious eyes. Guest appearances by Nancy Robinette as Madame Argant, Isabelle’s sour-faced dowager mother, and Clark Middleton as Scruple, Geronte’s lawyer, compound the chaos further.
And… did I mention the whole thing is in verse? For two hours, we follow Eraste and Crispin’s desperate caper through a virtually unbroken string of rhyming couplets, like when Eraste decries a visit from Argant:
My uncle hasn’t a snowball’s chance.
She’ll turn him into stone with one chill glance!
This is the basilisk, Madame Argant!
She whom the Prince of Darkness couldn’t daunt –
She next to whom a rock looks nonchalant –
Who makes Godzilla seem a mad bacchante –
To whom Atilla is a dilettante –
Argant, naturally, is standing right behind the oblivious Eraste the whole time. And from beginning to end, it’s this full-hearted irreverence that keeps the rhyming from driving us insane, plus a heart-pumping speed and precision from all actors involved.
Miraculously, we never tire of the A-B-A-B couplets. Instead, we follow the actors through every smart, careening turn. Combine period flourishes – and a dazzling wardrobe designed by Murell Horton – with the dogged bluntness of “Animal House,” toss in a feverishly slapstick sensibility, and think of the whole rhyming gimmick as a means of rap, and you start to get the idea just how mind-fizzingly fun this is.
The Heir Apparent doesn’t quite match the scale and grandeur of last season’s epic sliding puzzle The Liar, also an Ives project per Kahn’s invitation. Rather than taking the characters through a city-wide romp, this time the action is confined to Geronte’s parlor, where the characters spend so much time shoving, pulling, and knocking into each other, you’ll wish they had invented bicycle helmets by 1708.
But even in frantic scramble, the actors find their feet again like acrobats. It may amount to little more than a convoluted money grab, but it’s hard not to cheer for the grubbers anyway. By play’s end, Eraste and Crispin are still ransacking the place for coins. Little do they know they’ve spent the last two hours striking gold.
The Heir Apparent
Adapted by David Ives from the comedy by Jean-Francois Regnard
Directed by Michael Kahn
Produced by Shakespeare Theatre Company
Reviewed by Hunter Styles
Running time: 2 hrs, 10 min with one intermission
- Charles Shubow . BroadwayWorld
- Lisa Troshinsky . Washington Diplomat
- Charles Isherwood . New York Times
Paul Harris . Variety
- Jeremy Gerard . Bloomberg Business Week
- Trey Graham . Washington City Paper
Peter Marks . Washington Post
Don . WeLoveDC
Kate Wingfield . Metro Weekly
Susan Berlin . TalkinBroadway
- Jennifer Perry . MDTheatreGuide