Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Heir Apparent

The Heir Apparent, now onstage at Redwood Curtain in Eureka, is based on a French farce written by Jean-Francois Regnard in 1708. This version is a free adaptation in English rhyme by contemporary American playwright David Ives, who previously adapted comedies by Corneille and Moliere. He adapted this play for the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., where it premiered to general praise in 2011. You may want to look up those reviews for responses and points of view different from mine.

 The story involves the stock French farce characters of a dying miser, and the family members, friends and servants who scheme to get his money. It’s seemingly set in the bewigged 18th century French period of the original, though the adapted script makes many rhyming references to modern America, as well as to Shakespeare and French movies. Bodily functions and old age are prime topics for verbal japes and puns, and greed turns out to be vaguely bad.

 The Redwood Curtain production features an elegantly painted set by Daniel C. Nyiri (with a nicely disguised dollar sign as part of the design) and creative costumes by Jenneveve Hood. The actors were energetic in the preview performance I saw, notably Anthony Mankins as the role-playing servant and Kenneth Robert Wigley as the grasping nephew, with Bob E. Wells demonstrating his comic skills as the apparently dying miser whose fortune is the object of the grasping.

 The women in the play have less to do but Chyna Leigh, Leslie Ostrom and Kate Haley contribute to the action and have their comic moments. Brian Walker has an attention-getting turn as a very short lawyer (the script also makes fun of short people.)

 To bill the original play as a masterpiece numbs the word, though it may be the best farce that Regnard produced. He seems more of an imitation Moliere, without much of Moliere’s humanity or characters that are more than cutouts.

 At least the original play provides the framework of a common farce, with the pleasures this form affords. But for me, Ives’ version flattens the farce further by loading it with self-conscious irony and artificiality, and this production only piles on more extraneous weight. I usually enjoy verbal virtuosity. Some may find that Ives’ rhymed riffs add a layer of hilarity, while others—like me— experience the self-congratulatory cleverness quickly becoming smug and cloying, with frequent wince-inducing misfires. The pop culture and high art references that enlivened the rhymes turned into the sweet drone of a junk food binge, before becoming the regretful but relentless aftertaste of the vulgar, facile and pretentious artificial flavoring.

 The overall result is less than uproarious, though there are laughs. Some of the comic business is executed with enthusiasm and flair, however familiar these bits might be. The play might have been fun anyway had it been shorter, but at least in preview, it wandered on and on for a very long two hours plus. In the end, no matter how hard one might try to like it, the script is so in love with itself that no external affection could compete.

 Scatological humor is a dividing line for audiences, I find. There’s a lot of it, especially at the beginning of this script, so those who find it amusing may be gratified while others have ample opportunity to be nauseated.

 The lighting tricks—lights suddenly switching on and off over different parts of the stage, and a weak strobe sequence—seem to strive for cinematic effects and irony, but the idea was probably better than the ineffective reality. Directed by Kristin L. Mack, The Heir Apparent plays at Redwood Curtain Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m. through July 27, with a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday July 21.

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