One of the perks of arriving early to a St. Louis Shakespeare production is that on certain nights the company presents a pre-show talk with key members of the artistic and technical staff. You get some insight into why scenes were cut, or what a draper's job is (part genius, part wizard) or what the director believes the play is all about. Donna Northcott, director of the company's current production of The Heir Apparent, assured us in this case that "it doesn't really have any hidden layers. This is just an escape from the problems of real life." She ain't lyin'. As escapism goes, The Heir Apparent is so pleasurably satisfying that it should have a street value.
The Heir Apparent is David Ives' translation and rejiggering of Jean-Francois Regnard's 1706 comedy La Legataire universal. Eraste (Scott McDonald) is a young gentlemen with nothing but debts and a desire to marry the beautiful Isabelle (Jeanitta Perkins), whose ferociously mercenary mother Argante (Margeau Steinau) has one demand before she'll allow them to wed: Eraste must be the sole inheritor of his perpetually ailing uncle Geronte's vast fortune. No money, no honey.
From that simple set-up Northcott and her winning ensemble spin screams of laughter. Ives' script does some of the work, which retains Regnard's rhyming couplet structure but gilds the verse with modern references, scatological humor and the piquant spice of a little class warfare. For despite their sparkling conversation and the opulence of their lifestyle (hats off to set designer Chuck Winning and scenic painter Shannon Piwowarczyk for that, along with costume designer Michelle Siler), Eraste, Geronte, Isabelle and even the grasping Argante are all dumber than dirt. The servants Crispin (Isaiah DiLorenzo) and Lisette (Britteny Henry), however, are positively Machiavellian.
Their plan is, in the beginning, simple. If Eraste sucks up to Geronte (Shane Signorino) by feigning devotion, the old miser will stick him in the will out of gratitude. Unfortunately Geronte saves his thanks for Lisette, who brews the potions that keep him regular. Signorino, crook-backed and shouting gruffly, makes a meal of a longish speech about last night's diarrhea, if you'll pardon the phrasing. What's really disgusting, though, is his surprise announcement that Argante has convinced him to marry none other than Isabelle and leave her everything upon his passing.
Eraste, ineffective at everything, then bungles his own suicide at this news (watch Argante encourage him politely as he fumbles with the rope). Crispin and Lisette, however, convince him they can right this wrong. The duo use their tactical acumen not out of kindness, but because they wish to marry — help him, help themselves. And so they set into motion a series of plans that require a body double, some light cross-dressing and the duping of Geronte's tiny, persnickety lawyer Scruple (Anthony Winninger, who does yeoman's work from a very cramped position).
What becomes clear during all this is that Crispin and Lisette are our real heroes. DiLorenzo throws himself into the role of the canny Crispin, and he wins laughs by floridly scheming aloud, as well as the way that he retreats and faces the front door, half-heartedly shaking a duster, when the rich folk discuss something. Henry is similarly excellent, sparring with Geronte with all the disdain of a mother who suspects a child of malingering, and propping up her beau with well-timed kisses when things proceed according to plan. When things go wrong — and they go wrong at a rate of three-to-one — she's the voice of reason. But with this much money at stake, there's not much call for that.
McDonald's Eraste is a nincompoop by comparison, with the skittery mannerisms and blank gaze of a befuddled Michael Cera. Perkins matches him well as Lisette, whose charms are strictly ornamental. The pair get a roar of laughter when, at the point that a new plan is suddenly needed, their determined thinking expressions fade to disinterest, confusion and then vacant stares. What beautiful, beautiful dummies.
Signorino positively slays as Geronte, shouting about his bowel movements, bellowing his belief that Isabelle will succor him (he makes it sound so damn dirty) and wreaking constant havoc despite being on death's door. Steinau's role as Argante is smaller, but she makes the most of it. Resplendent in a glittering emerald dress and matching jewels, she wafts through rooms hurling barbs at the servants and patronizing poor dumb Eraste at every turn. It's a genuine pleasure when she gets her happy ending.
But then everybody gets a happy ending here. The Heir Apparent is a farce: The harsh realities of the world hold no sway in this dream world. Instead everybody goes home smiling, laughing with delight at the way it all turned out. Especially the audience.