Shakespeare is hardly known for shirking overt scatological and sexual puns, but the bard’s Elizabethan English sometimes leaves them hard to catch for modern audiences. This is not so for David Ives’ adaptation of “The Heir Apparent,” Jean-Francois Regnard’s bawdy 1708 farce. Driven forward by singsong, rhyming couplets — “He hired a lawyer no taller than a creeper, as if because he’s short, he might come cheaper” — the dialogue manages to feel antiquated on the whole despite its modern and thankfully discernible vernacular.
Set vaguely in 18th century France — with plenty of anachronisms thrown into the mix — the play follows the increasingly absurd schemes of Eraste (Kenny Toll) in cahoots with his manservant Crispin (Patrick Kelly Jones) to ensure he receives the million francs’ value of his uncle Geronte’s (Julian Lopez-Morillas) estate when the old man kicks the bucket. The problem? Not only does it seem like Geronte has no intentions of leaving Eraste his fortune, it seems highly likely that he might die at any moment — critically, before the lawyer arrives to write up the will.
Eraste’s intentions are not purely greedy. He is in love with Isabelle (Khalia Davis), but her money hawk of of a mother Argonte (Elizabeth Carter) won’t allow them to wed unless Eraste can secure his uncle’s fortune. In fact, Argante goes a step further, convincing Geronte to marry Isabelle instead — to the horror of Eraste and Isabelle, and, frankly speaking, the audience.
What follows is a series of hilariously absurd plans involving the requisite crop of over-the-top disguises, impersonations and close calls, all driven forward at breakneck speed by the lack of scene changes or breaks. The only stop in action occurs at intermission. The trio of Eraste, Crispin and Geronte’s maid Lisette (Katie Rubin) try everything from “ass-kissing” to threats with a shotgun to separate the old man from his money, but to little avail.
The jokes are crude and witty, the acting is so dramatic as to border on parody, and the physical humor is relentless, reinforced intermittently by the chiming of the old grandfather clock in the form of flatulence. The small audience at Aurora Theatre Company — which has only 150 seats on three sides of the stage — was constantly in fits of laughter and in fact, was often part of the performance as the actors rifled through bags, fell dramatically onto patrons and made offhand remarks to the nearest audience members during monologues on the other end of the stage.
In fact, it was those moments of anachronism — of a random reference to soccer moms or the sudden shift in lighting to paint Eraste and Isabelle as if on a movie screen, projector sounds and all, as the two murmur amorously in French — that made the production so enjoyable. The fourth-wall breaks, the slippage into modern accents for a single phrase and the derisive reference of Crispin to the audience as rich sons of bitches all add to this sense of off-balance, the feeling that anything goes and nothing can be expected.
Toll and Davis both produced entertaining performances and Lopez-Morillas embodied the geriatric, sickly Geronte. Yet, it was Jones’ and Rubens’ performances as Crispin and Lisette, respectively, that really stole the show. Of all the characters, they were the sharp end of Ives’ proverbial stick. Tasked additionally with occasional narration, the two were entrusted with the most shocking puns, drifting in and out of the narrative and time period with ease while the rest of the cast remained at least somewhat rooted.
For most of us, we grow up reading Shakespeare, and as we sit in class poring over his comedies such as “Twelfth Night,” we can start to see how they might be funny. We go to watch productions of his works, and at serendipitous moments we catch the humor and laugh along. We’re always told that his plays are hilarious and had the common people of England rolling in the aisles. With “The Heir Apparent,” we get to experience that and walk out with sore cheeks.
“The Heir Apparent” is playing at Aurora Theatre Company through May 15.
Imad Pasha covers music. Contact him at [email protected].