Born into extraordinary wealth during the reign of Louis XIV, French writer Jean-François Regnard traveled widely—and for a while, involuntarily, when he was captured by Barbary pirates and sold into slavery. Ransomed, he continued his travels, spending time with the Sami people of Lapland. Then he took a cushy government job that left him free to write Molière-esque plays for Molière’s old theater, the Comédie-Française. Regnard died under ambiguous circumstances (suicide? horse pills?) at age 54, but even that didn’t end his adventures. His disinterred skull was discovered in the 1830s by some kids, who, the story goes, used it as a soccer ball.
All of which begs the question: Why did David Ives choose to adapt a Regnard farce when he might’ve written one about Regnard himself? As things stand, The Heir Apparent, Ives’s rhymed yet rangy adaptation of Regnard’s Le Légataire Universel, lacks even a single pirate.
Not that that makes it a waste of time. The Heir Apparent is mostly fun and mostly entertainingly performed in the current Chicago Shakespeare Theater production directed by John Rando. But its virtues come across as spotty, forced, and familiar—particularly disappointing given Ives’s history of witty resourcefulness in devising versions of Corneille (The Liar) and Molière (The Misanthrope, presented as The School for Lies).
Penniless young aristocrat Eraste covets two things above all else: sweet Isabelle and Uncle Geronte’s immense fortune. Since getting the latter will assure him the former, he does his best to become the old miser’s heir. But, sick as he is—and, in Paxton Whitehead’s performance, he exhibits supremely disgusting symptoms—Geronte has his own plans for his life and wealth. So Eraste and his cunning servant, Crispin, find themselves using all kinds of stratagems to get hold of the money.
Regnard was famous for his unprincipled heroes, and, sure enough, Eraste and Crispin’s lack of compunction is the most interesting thing about them. Ives, however, sets their immorality play amid anachronistic references (Godzilla, Tonto and his kemosabe) and intentionally fudged verse that foster a generic hilarity rather than inciting anarchy, as the same devices do in other Ives “transladaptations.” Similarly, Joe Pesci lookalike Cliff Saunders pushes his antics as Crispin—which dominate the play’s long midsection—to a one-note and therefore self-defeating point of hysteria. It’s a great relief when Whitehead is onstage, using his subtler comic skills to bring some modulation to the proceedings. v