Who would have thought a steady stream of shameless rhymes and groan-worthy puns could be such a hoot? But in the pitiless hands of playwright David Ives — whose play “Venus in Fur” opens on Broadway later this fall — there is payoff aplenty in this adaptation of “The Heir Apparent,” a 300-year-old French farce by Jean-Francois Regnard.
Show launches the 25th anniversary season of D.C.’s Shakespeare Theater Company. STC artistic director Michael Kahn commissioned Ives to translate and adapt the comedy by the seldom-produced playwright, overshadowed in history by Moliere. The assignment follows Ives’ well received adaptation for Kahn in 2010 of Pierre Corneille’s “The Liar,” another 17th century French comedy which, like “Heir,” was written in verse. Both are products of STC’s 7- year-old ReDiscovery Series that revives neglected classics.
Written in 1708, a year before Regnard died, “Heir” (“Le Legataire Universel”) was the scribe’s final and most successful play, praised for its gentle parody of French society within an appealingly zany plot hell-bent on drawing laughs.
In this decidedly low brow exercise, potty jokes are treated as high art in obvious contrast to the Shakespeare Theater’s standard fare. The impish Ives goes one step further by peppering the piece with modern America asides. “I’m just a soccer mom at heart,” concedes one character.
Set in an ornately disheveled drawing room designed by Alexander Dodge and lit to shadowy perfection by Philip Rosenberg, a wizened curmudgeon played by STC regular Floyd King has announced plans to draw up his will. Greed naturally assumes control of the busy household.
Rhyming couplets spew forth, the more tortured the better. “I don’t care what anybody says. I am a one-man Comedie Francaise,” boasts the scheming manservant Crispin (Carson Elrod) following a merry romp of disguises and high jinx. Elrod’s Crispin is the play’s prime comedic spark, ably assisted in his impromptu ruse by Andrew Veestra as the nephew and uncle’s apparent sole heir, and Kelly Hutchinson as a devious maid and Crispin’s girlfriend.
Precision timing and athleticism are among the attributes of Kahn’s fast-paced and entertaining production. Other highlights include delightful turns by Meg Chambers Steedle as the suffering bride-to-be, Nancy Robinette as her dowager mother and Clark Middleton as the vertically challenged attorney who reluctantly serves as everyone’s foil.
As with “Liar,” the clever “Heir” underscores the value of STC’s enterprising ReDiscovery series as a vital source for re-envisioned classics for today’s audiences.