Wednesday, May 4, 2016

"The Heir Apparent"

The Heir Apparent
David Ives
Adapted from Le Légataire universel by Jean-François Regnard

Lisette, (Katie Rubin*), Madame Argonte (Elizabeth Carter*), Eraste (Kenny Toll), and Isabelle (Khalia Davis*) watch Geronte’s imposter (c. Patrick Kelly Jones*) sign his will in Aurora’s Bay Area Premiere of The Heir Apparent
Pandora’s Box has tumbled open at Aurora Theatre Company; and pouring out has come a plethora of playground-worthy jokes about bodily functions, all told in rhymed couplets.  How funny is yet one more reference being made to “diarrhea” or “enema” while hearing a grandfather clock emitting smoke-filled farts with abundance?  Well, quite funny the first couple of times, I must admit; but after a while, the jokes do sometimes begin to run thin.  (Oops, sorry for the bad pun.) 

But, this is the late 1600s/early 1700s when stock characters, bawdy humor, and Moliere were all the rage in France and beyond.  Jean-François Regnard (retuning from being captured by pirates and sold into slavery) decided to bring the fun to the Italian-speaking audiences, writing in 1708 for an Italian troupe based in Paris, the Comédie-Italienne, a comedy about greed, love, family, and mix-ups galore entitled Le Légataire universel.  Jump ahead three- centuries, and David Ives thinks it is time to update the fast-moving, joke-a-minute, parlor parody by creating a new adaptation, keeping the rhyming scheme and the early 18th century Parisian setting and sprinkling into the language references like “Cadillac,” “Godzilla,” “Bromo Seltzer,” “girly mags, “ and “national health insurance.”  It is this version of The Heir Apparent that Aurora Theatre offers as a Bay Area premiere.

The rich (he has a million francs, we are reminded time and again), mucous-throated, coughing Geronte is nearing his last breath (or, is he?).  Money-hungry buzzards are circling the grouchy, old miser with franc-sized tears pouring from their eyes.  Nephew Crispin, in-love servants Lisette and Eraste, Crispin’s betrothed Isabelle, and her mother Argante are all watching, waiting, and especially wanting to influence whom the old guy will today designate in his will as his sole heir.  Crispin swoons in drippy, doting fashion over his Uncle when he is in the room and then plots with the wily and willing servants on the side when he is not on how to get the will consigned to him.  The race is on before Death knocks on the door, but be prepared for a number of the Grim Reaper’s premature visits to an old man with more lives than a cat. 

Argante has decided that marrying her daughter to the old coot is the best way to insure all the money stays close to her, and the old man has taken to the idea with spit-spouting glee (interspersed, of course, between his ongoing bouts of nose-turning flatulence).  Isabelle, on the other hand, only wants her Crispin to inherit his uncle’s money so they can marry.  As Geronte prepares his bridegroom’s attire in between runs to the bathroom and declarations of his supposed death, Crispin et al create wild and wooly schemes to ensure no one but Crispin gets the dough -- schemes that include visits of him disguised as a rude Yankee nephew and as a French, pig-farm niece. The ride is as silly and crazy as a kid’s Disneyland attraction but just a tad bit bawdier.

Julian Lopez-Morillas sputters and spits, growls and grumbles, and trips and tumbles as the Scrooge who has the only key to his treasure chest attached on a string around his neck -- a string just long enough to reach the length of the theatre to where it sits in a far, enshrined corner.  His Geronte appears at times to be totally addled and slowly asphyxiating but at other times is fully capable of hiding many tricks up his long, heavy robe of multi-colored autumn leaves and flowers, fully ready to thwart any plots on his fortune.  He has his eyes on the young, beautiful Isabelle (Khalia Davis), who can hardly contain her disgust while also dutifully adhering to her scheming mother’s wishes for all that gold.  Elizabeth Carter is the mother-figure Argante, who wants her daughter to be happy, likes her intended son-in-law well enough (Crispin), but insists any serious suitor must have a stash of cash, which Crispin sorely lacks.

Katie Rubin is a maid with a mind of her own who is not shy in telling her master, Geronte, just what she thinks of him.  “Your bowels are the only parts that move,” she snips as he rushes off stage to his toilet (something he does frequently, thanks to the frequent potions and enemas she is pumping into him).  Lisette is often in the background raising an eyebrow or a slight smirk or just looking a little impatient and bored with how long the old man in taking to die.  However, along with the estate’s other servant and her heart-pound, Eraste (Kenny Toll), she is quite willing to join head over heels (literally) into some of the increasingly absurd stratagems conceived by Crispin to rid the old man of his money -- and maybe his life.

And it is this Crispin where so much of the play’s frenetic energy, ongoing twists and turns, and ridiculous ideas emanate.  The whirling wheels within Patrick Kelly Jones’ head as the plotting Crispin are almost visible in their spinning as we watch him use one hand to stroke his uncle’s capped head and the other to scratch his own to figure out the next move of deceit.  Taking on disguises to thwart ideas of leaving the money to anyone but he (something his Uncle seems set definitely not inclined to do), Crispin enters as an gun-toting fur-trader from America, a pink-dressed Bo Beep who tends pigs rather than sheep (in this case, duplicated by the two servants who get the same idea), and even as the dying uncle himself in order to fool a lawyer come to scribe the will.  As schemes unravel (which of course they do), this Crispin becomes ever more over-the-top with antics any 1950’s I Love Lucy show would have been fully willing to copy.

And it is important to remember that all the fortune-seekers’ bantering and bickering, false-hearted doting and background dickering, and occasional love declaring and love making is all being done in rhymed couplets.

The final stock character to enter the drawing room, not showing up until Act Two, is the diminutive lawyer, Scruple, whose four-foot stature is trailed by long court robes and fronted by two huge feet (hiding the knees that Lawrence Radecker uses to walk).  His entrance of course opens all sorts of possibilities for jokes of the legal sort and for the upping of conspiracies to trick him into penning Crispin into the final will.  But, his presence also leads to a flood of ‘short’ jokes that seem almost endless and that frankly left me feeling extremely uncomfortable.  While understanding an over-the-top comedy of this sort that is hell-bent for every laugh possible is not too concerned with being “PC,” I nervously looked around to see who else was in the audience and if these jokes might have unintended targets.  Even as a 6’3” attendee, I could not help but feel a bit put off as the puns and pokes continued about the lawyer’s height.

And it is the tendency for repetition and excess that for me is where The Heir Apparent begins by the second hour to lose some of his comic appeal.  As mentioned upfront in this review, a joke line or subject is funny the first couple of times; but if repeated over and again, the effect begins dramatically to lesson.  For example, an ingenious stroke of directorial humor to turn a quick love scene between Crispin and Isabella into a mimicked French film (with the obligatory, post cigarette) is not done just once, but reappear for another go or two.  While excess is expected in this early version of slapstick, either a shorter version or a little more variety along the way would be welcomed.  Even the rhyming begins to lose much of its fun by the end of the play and becomes a bit tiresome.

Eric Sinkkonen has done all he can to create a set that fulfills the needs for both aesthetic scene setting of the early 1700s as well as comedic touches for the parody.  Rich red walls, a metallic shuttered window, and marble-looking floors ensure the former are while touches like a huge grandfather clock whose neighboring potbelly stove’s flue cuts through the clock’s frame bring the laughs.  (The clock, by the way, plays a major part in the story’s resolution,  with much contribution by Prop Designer Daniel Banatao’s ingenuity.)

Jeff Rowlings and Chris Houston further enhance the rich setting with light and sound but also contribute to chuckles with well-placed, right-timed beamed spots and sound spurts.  Callie Floor’s gowns, robes, and employed disguises do their parts to establish timing and societal status as well as prove essential in producing some well-deserved, audience guffaws.

Director Josh Costello and the cast and production team of Aurora Theatre have given a yeoman’s effort in doing everything possible to squeeze all laughs possible from David Ives’ spicy, saucy, silly The Heir Apparent.  For anyone whose tolerance is high for excess of a good thing, do not miss this chance to chortle to heart’s content in the over-the-top, well-executed Aurora Theatre’s modern-language update of a early eighteenth century farce.

Rating:  3 E

The Heir Apparent continues in an extended run through May 22, 2016 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA.  Tickets are available online at or by calling 415-843-4822.

Photo by David Allen

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