Chicago Theatre Review
Heavy on the Ham and Cheese
The Heir Apparent – Chicago Shakespeare Theatre
Chicago Shakespeare Theatre seems the perfect venue for this play. New York director John Rando recreates his Off-Broadway success from a year ago, once again casting the much-respected, classically trained Paxton Whitehead in the leading role. With the audience seated close to the stage, right in the lap of the action, Rando has staged his madcap production as it demands to be presented. Featuring broad, over-the-top characters, often spouting tasteless dialogue, the story begins with a bang, scampers, scuttles and sprints about the stage, sometimes diving into the audience, and never lets up until the final bows.
Playwright David Ives, known primarily for his racy, Tony nominated “Venus in Fur,” seems to have found another creative outlet by adapting classical French comedies for contemporary audiences. First came his reimagining of Georges Feydeau’s “A Flea in Her Ear;” that was followed by Moliere’s “The Misanthrope,” which Ives rewrote as the comedy, “School for Lies.” In this new play, Ives has adapted 18th century playwright Jean-Francois Regnard’s humorous masterwork “ Le Legataire universel” into this new comedy. Ives infuses his script with elements from Moliere’s “The Miser” and “The Imaginary Invalid,” plus a host of modern phrases and slang, all spoken in rhymed couplets. Often the humor comes from the unexpected sound alliteration and a heap of anachronistic references to today’s world, all amidst the splendor and finery of Paris during the early 1700’s.
The story is populated with stock characters from commedia dell‘arte. We have the young lovers, the scheming, ever-helpful servants, the wily lawyer, the controlling matriarch and the foolish, wealthy old man. The story, which sounds simple enough, is accelerated by the young couple’s passionate urgency to marry with means before there are any more complications. Eraste is in love with lovely Isabelle. The one thing that stands in their way is the young woman’s mother, the mercenary Madame Argante. She’s hellbent determined that her comely daughter will marry someone wealthy, with no concern about her prospective son-in-law’s age. Eraste’s wealthy Uncle Geronte is a sickly old miser, teetering on death’s door. In his final hours Geronte has decided to marry Isabelle, which delights her mother. Aided by Geronte’s two clever house servants, Lisette and her beau Crispin, the young people set out to remedy this situation. A height-challenged lawyer, ironically named Scruple, unexpectedly arrives in Act II ready to draw up the dying man’s will. He doesn’t realize that Geronte has already passed away, leaving his fortune to two unknown relatives. Through some fast talking and impressive disguises, it’s up to Crispin to help makes things right for his young master Eraste, Crispin’s sweetheart Lisette and, of course, himself.
John Rando’s Chicago cast is led by Paxton Whitehead, the actor who originated the role of Geronte in New York. One of several in this cast making his CST debut, but no stranger to Chicago audiences from his appearances in the National Tours of “My Fair Lady” and “Camelot,” Mr. Whitehead is very much at home in this demanding role. Convincingly pallid and peaked, Mr. Whitehead behaves like a spoiled child while languishing like Camille and continually dying and coming back to life again, like Lazarus. Years of experience have made Whitehead a master of style, smooth, clear enunciation and nicely-timed comic delivery. It’s a delicious treat to enjoy this fine actor in the Windy City, doing what he does best.
Cliff Saunders, also making his CST debut, is an energetic dynamo of a young actor, changing costumes and characters with the speed and grace of a Tasmanian Devil. He is, as he says, “a one-man Comedie-Francaise!” Rando, of course, has his work cut out for him, keeping the rest of the cast from paling in the presence of this young actor, as he races around impersonating Geronte and the two bizarre relatives, to whom the old man left his fortune. It’s easy to see how Mr. Saunders’ previous credits include such fast-paces shows as “The 39 Steps,” “A Flea in Her Ear” and “A Servant of Two Masters.” Saunders is truly the manic mastermind of this story.
Hopefully Patrick Kerr has a good massage master on speed dial. The actor scuttles around the stage on his knees, to which are fastened shoes that create the illusion, under his long legal robes, that Scruple is dwarf-like in stature. His look, confusion and arrogance are quite funny and much credit goes to Mr. Kerr for keeping character while remembering a quantity of confusing dialogue. In the end, Scruple as to admit, “This place is fun. A wondrous mess! I wish my every day knew such excess!”
Nate Burger makes a humorous, handsome young Eraste. His brown-nosing with Uncle Geronte borders on being annoying, but the charismatic Mr. Burger keeps the nephew likable enough for audiences to cheer for his success. Pretty, perky Emily Peterson is spunky and agile as Isabelle, sashaying around in layers of skirts and petticoats. Another debuting actor at CST, Ms. Peterson understands how to play this poor little rich girl with just the right balance of 18th century innocence coupled with 21st century stratagem and self-discipline. Jessie Fisher is properly feisty and deadpan as the poor servant assigned to empty Geronte’s bedpan and bathe him after his night sweats and bouts of intestinal surrender. And CST veteran character actor, Linda Kimbrough, straps on her corset and dons her best lemon-sucking expression to create a haughty, rigidly relentless Madame Argante. Audiences may guess the final trajectory of this mercenary character, but few will anticipate the fun in her final discovery.
Seasoned liberally with coarse vulgarity and scatological humor, and liberally peppered with modern day references and characterizations, David Ives’ latest adaptation is a lot of fun. It’s definitely not family theatre, but for adult audiences who enjoy their slapstick broad and unbridled, this show will provide a holiday treat. The play has its roots in the French classical theater, with a nod to commedia dell’arte; but it’s easily accessible for modern audiences who delight in Dr. Seuss-like rhymes and wordplay. The story offers a few surprises, but anyone familiar with Moliere’s comedies will predict most of what lies ahead. The beauty of John Rando’s production lies in some finely executed acting, an array of beautiful costumes and wig designs (by David Woolard and Melissa Veal) and Kevin Depinet’s chandeliered period setting, accented with rich color and minute detail. It’s the theatrical equivalent of a warm, fragrant Croque Monsieur, especially heavy on the ham and overflowing with fromage.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented December 8-January 17 by Chicago Shakespeare Theater at the CST Courtyard Theater on Navy Pier.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 312-595-5600 or by going to www.chicagoshakes.com.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com