Port-au-Prince was never an easy place to live. Sixty million years ago, the land under it was caught in the middle when the buoyant continental crust of North America crashed into the Caribbean Plate. The two plates had been pushing against each other for ages, forcing up from the seabed an arc of islands that would one day be known as the Greater Antilles. Then came a jolt so violent that it the plates’ direction, catching the arc in a sideswiping collision that would slowly tear each island to splinters. On the second-largest island of the Greater Antilles, these shearing forces forged the highest mountains and deepest troughs of the archipelago. On its northern half rose the Massif du Nord; in the southwest, the Massif de la Hotte and Massif de la Salle. Between these mountains , at the foot of where the Caribbean was being pushed over the volcanic terrane, was a solitary lowland depression just seven and a half miles wide. That is where Port-au-Prince would be built.
Lecherous miser, saucy maid, wily servant, impecunious nephew, sweet young thing: Paxton Whitehead, Claire Karpen, Carson Elrod, Dave Quay, and Amelia Pedlow scheme, connive, and rhyme their way through The Heir Apparent, David Ives’ faithful in its own very funny fashion adaptation of an Eighteenth Century French farce, now enjoying an exuberant run at Classic Stage Company.
Who was it said, “The French are funny, sex is funny, comedy is funny, and yet no French sex comedies are funny”?
Probably somebody trying to be funny.
Also somebody who hadn’t yet seen Classic Stage Company’s current production of The Heir Apparent. Which is French. Technically. Which is about sex. Some of the time. Which is a comedy. Definitely. Which is funny. Very.
The Heir Apparent is the brilliant 21st Century American playwright David Ives’ word-happy, rhyme-crazy, mind-bending, head-spinning, tongue-twisting, joke-quip-gag-and pun-juggling adaptation of Jean-Francois Regnard’s early 18th Century French farce Le Legataire Universal about the impecunious nephew---Is there any other kind?---of a lecherous old miser---What else would he be?---in love with the sweet young daughter---Naturalment!---of a domineering and avaricious widow---You were expecting kind-hearted and charitable?---who with the help of his wily servant---You saw that wily coming a kilometer away, didn’t you?---must trick his uncle into making him the sole beneficiary of his will so that the domineering widow will consent to his marrying her sweet, young daughter.
And then there’s a lawyer…
Directed by John Rondo, whom I imagine running rehearsals drawing X’s, arrows, and O’s on a whiteboard, The Heir Apparent scores laughs from every corner of the CSC’s thrust stage. There’s much breaking of the fourth wall. Jokes are pulled in from wherever they can be found even if Ives has to reach all the way from 1702 to 2014 to get them. The play references itself and critiques itself as it bounds merrily along. From time to time the characters seem to become vaguely aware they aren’t speaking French and start listening in bafflement at what’s coming out of their mouths. Other times they appear to be on the verge of realizing they’re characters in a play, which while mildly confusing them for a moment, doesn’t upset them. Au contraire. It gives them renewed energy and confidence to proceed full-tilt in their absurdities. And all of this is dealt out in rhymed couplets.
The physically nimble, verbally gymnastic cast is led by a rumbling, grumbling Paxton Whitehead as the miserly uncle, Geronte, and Carson Elrod as the increasingly carried away by his own wily genius wily servant Crispin.
Crispin, as afflicted by a meta-consciousness as any literary construct whose creator has endowed with the ability to read himself, appears to know that as a wily servant in a comedy his job is to cause and increase confusion as the best method for bringing about harmony, understanding, and general happily-ever-aftering. Reassured by the trope, he’s confident that any crazy idea that pops into his head must be a good idea even if it strikes him as crazy. He also knows that it’s in the Wily Servant job description that wily servants have to adopt and drop multiple disguises at a moment’s notice. Again, faith in the trope saves him by assuring him that any disguise he adopts will fool whomever it needs to fool, no matter how obvious and outrageous. In fact, the more obvious and outrageous the more effective the disguise.
With his beady eyes transfixed as if stunned by what he’s just gotten away with and half-amazed and half-terrified by what he’s about to try next, Elrod’s Crispin carries off his schemes and impostures with brio and panache if not aplomb.
Meanwhile, the target of Crispin’s scheming, Whitehead’s Geronte is not a monster of greed and selfishness. He’s more like a big baby with a baby’s idea of how world is meant to work---it’s all organized to take care of his needs---and a baby’s concept of mine. He’s not being mean about it when he fails to consider his nephew’s and servants’ needs and feelings. He’s just oblivious to the fact that they have needs and feelings that aren’t in complete agreement with his own.
Plus, he’s preoccupied.
Geronte has a tricky digestive tract that demands constant monitoring and regulation. Much of his conversation in the early going involves graphic descriptions of the current state of his personal plumbing.
You haven’t heard scatological humor until you’ve heard it rhymed.
But he’s not so preoccupied he doesn’t recognize he has other bodily functions. Geronte has a lecherous side. But when he decides, apparently on a whim of the moment, to complicate things for his nephew even further by declaring his intention to marry girl himself---today! at two!---it’s not a sure bet either way which he’s the more desirous of acquiring with the match, a frisky and nubile young wife or a combination nurse and laundress on call 24/7.
This is a comedy, comedy is transformative, and Geronte needs transforming. Whitehead takes Geronte through four revisions of himself, including, for one scene of Marx Brothers-worthy hilarity, a temporarily zombiefied version, in which he staggers back from a presumed death to interrupt Crispin in the middle of another imposture, that of Geronte himself, and the two enact an homage to Groucho and Harpo’s mirror scene in Duck Soup.
As parasitical nephews go, Dave Quay's Eraste is one of the most amiable, affable, and considerate ones going. He even manages some sincere affection for his uncle, repugnant and selfish as the old fool can be. Although he's straight-forward in admitting aspects of his life would improve greatly if the old man would just drop off the twig and Geronte makes it hard not to look forward impatiently to that event, he doesn't actually wish his uncle would die. Well, not all the time. He doesn't need Geronte's money right away. He just needs to be named in the will right now. Fortunately, he can rely on his trusty valet Crispin. Fortunately, as well, Eraste has wiles of his own. While Crispin switches madly from imposture to imposture, Eraste's job is to keep his uncle distracted, his (he hopes) future mother-in-law placated, and his beloved reassured that he loves her, is not about to see her married off to his repulsive uncle, and will get that will written and signed---his beloved is no fool and knows where her interests lie. Quay brings it off with wit, intelligence, charm, and only a hint of madness born of panic and desperation.
Amelia Pedlow plays Isabelle as a sweet young thing but a remarkably level-headed sweet young thing. Practical in matters of love, sex and money, clear-eyed about the way her marital interests depend on Eraste's financial scheming, and, a good helpmeet in the making, capable of jumping right in to connive right along with Crispin and Eraste and contribute a few mad ideas of her own.
Pragmatic and fiscally self-interested a couple as they are, Isabelle and Eraste have a vibrant romantic streak that comes out when one or the other of them remembers they're French. Then everything comes to a stop as, with the cooperation of the lighting and music, they leave the play for a moment and take their places for their close up in a New Wave film in which, locked in melodramatic embrace, they exchange passionate endearments...in French of course. Then it's quickly back to business.
Clare Karpen as Geronte’s maid and Crispin’s beloved, Lisette, and Suzanne Bertish as Madame Argante, Isabelle’s coolly cynical and calculating mother, keep the other characters and the play from spinning off into complete madness with their contrasting examples of practicality.
Lisette, who has Geronte under her control thanks to her buxom figure and skill with an enema bag, knows she’s at her most alluring when she’s being most practical. As someone whose job in life is cleaning up other people’s messes, she’s developed a knack for anticipating messes before they happen and if not always able to prevent them then to be right there to mop up, a knack that makes her the perfect partner for a wily but not always careful servant like Crispin.
P.G. Wodehouse’s Lord Ickenham once shuddered at the memory of an aunt who with one withering glance through her lorgnette could knock the stuffing out of meddlesome policemen who forgot their place. Madame Argante doesn’t trifle about with lorgnettes. What she brings to bear is a beguilingly wolfish smile guaranteed to shrivel the heart of the boldest suitor of her daughter.
Oh, and did I mention there’s a lawyer?
David Pittu plays the dimunitive attorney called in to write Geronte’s will, Scruple, who unlike most stage lawyers actually has one, even two. Scruples, that is. He also has an extremely nervous disposition, a fragile vanity, an understanable sensitivity about his height, and a paranoid tendency to think that everything anyone says or does that he doesn’t immediately understand is intended to insult, humiliate, confuse, and cozen him. He happens to be right, in this case, but it’s nothing personal. It’s hilarious watching Pittu, who enters tightly wound, wind himself tighter and tighter as he struggles to maintain his dignity and his sanity as the apparent lunatics running this asylum work him into their mad schemes and counter-schemes.
But the real star of the show is the playwright. Ives’ dialog is written in a knowing, colloquial American English that somehow still sounds convincingly in period. It’s wackily allusive, craftily metaphorical, full of casually tossed off anachronisms, and, as I mentioned, all carefully metered and rhymed. In some cases the rhymes themselves are the joke. In others it’s their naturalness that amazes. In all cases, Ives’ comic genius is a cause for wonder and applause.
I’ve been to comedies before where I was afraid to laugh in case I missed the next joke. But I never saw one before this that made me want to stand up and cheer for a near-rhyme.
The Heir Apparent, by David Ives, adapted from the play by John-Francois Regnard. Directed by John Lando. Set design by John Lee Beatty, costumes by David C. Woolard, and lighting by Japhy Weideman. With Suzanne Bertish, Carson Elrod, Claire Karpen, Amelia Pedlow, David Pittu, Dave Quay, and Paxton Whitehead.
…How people who aren’t millionaires, who will never be millionaires, whose lives are made difficult in dozens of little and large ways by the doings and dealings of millionaires identify with the party of millionaires and even identify in their own minds as millionaires or as millionaires in the making.
---from my notebooks. April 25, 2013. Can’t remember what prompted it.
Rotterdam, New York. Thursday morning around nine. April 24, 2014. Posted from the road.
I’d never seen one of these before. Wonder how much business it does and who’s using it. There are probably companies and government agencies in the area with fleets of vehicles that run on natural gas but I’d expect them to have their own filling stations. But are there private cars out there running on natural gas? Who makes them? What’s their range? How do they work? Do they work? Guess I’ve got some googling ahead of me when I get home.
My problem with all the violence and bloodshed on Game of Thrones is that the nobles, who apparently can kill with impunity, never take their swords to people just for being annoying. Nobody gets it for talking during the movie, trying to buy 30 items in the 10 items or less line, passing on the right, coming to church with a hacking cough due to a cold, tweeting in all caps, waiting until getting right up to the counter before even thinking about what to order. Civilization protects these irritants. We don’t do much of anything about them because it’s less irritating and less disruptive to let them irritate us. So they never learn their lesson and continue to go about breaking all the little rules the rest of us abide by in order not to go about in a constant state of irritation. But what’s the use of a total breakdown in civilization if you can’t at least take your broadsword to the tires of somebody who’s taking up three slots by parking their new Hummer at an angle so it won’t get dinged?
This morning I took the wagon down to get gas. There are two sets of pumps on a single island at the station. There was a single car on each side of the island. Both drivers had pulled up so that they blocked both pumps. Both were small sedans, a Honda Accord and a Hyundai. They had both just pulled in to so that they could see me and the two other cars looking to gas up. Did either of them bother to pull all the way up?
Why do you think I’m writing this post.
Not only didn’t they pull up, they each took their sweet time about getting out of their car. And of course neither one paid at the pump. And of course when they went inside to pay they each had to buy something. The driver of the Hyundai was a heavy-gutted man around fifty wearing a gray suit and sporting a brush cut. He bought a coffee. Large. With cream. And sugar. Oh, and he almost forgot. A donut. The Honda driver was a little younger. He wore a ball cap and glasses and the slightly stunned, resigned expression of someone who’d overslept and was late for work and was already hearing his boss yelling at him, again. Not that this made him hurry. Just the opposite. It slowed him down in an Oh what’s the use way as he bought his breakfast burrito, coffee, juice, lottery ticket, and stocked up on a few items for around the house. By the time he got back to his car, I was just about done filling up mine in the space finally vacated by the Hyundai, whose driver, as you might have guessed, was very careful not to meet my eye as he climbed in his car, set his coffee on the dash, buckled up, adjusted his seat belt, adjusted his mirrors, took a couple of sips of his coffee, searched around for a place to put it, decided against using the cup holder, and started up and nosed his way out, balancing his coffee on the steering wheel with one hand as he steered with two fingers of the other. The other driver avoided eye contact too as he took his time settling in behind the wheel of his Honda. So they both knew!
I managed to leave enough room behind the wagon for another car to pull in and so did the F150 that pulled in on the other side when the Honda dawdled on its merry way.
Like I said, civilized society functions because we let stupid and annoying people like this get away with being stupid and annoying. But Westeros isn’t civilized so why should they put up with it?
There are those who believe knowledge is something that is acquired---a precious ore hacked, as it were, from the gray strata of ignorance.
There are those who believe that knowledge can only be recalled, that there was some Golden Age in the distant past when everything was known and the stones fitted together so you could hardly put a knife between them...
Mustrum Ridcully believed that knowledge could be acquired by shouting at people...
It's amazing how good governments are, given their track records in almost every other field, at hushing up things like alien encounters.
One reason may be that the aliens themselves are too embarrassed to talk about it.
It's not known why most of the space-going races of the universe want to undertake rummaging in Earthling underwear as a prelude to formal contact. But representatives of several hundred races have taken to hanging out, unsuspected by one another, in rural corners of the planet and, as a result, keep on abducting other would-be abductors. Some have been in fact abducted while waiting to carry out an abduction on a couple of other aliens trying to abduct the aliens who were, as a result of misunderstood instructions, trying to form cattle into circles and mutilate crops.
The planet Earth is now banned to all alien races until they can compare notes and find out how many, if any, real humans they have actually got. It is gloomily suspected that there is only one---who is big, hairy and has very large feet.
The truth may be out there, but lies are inside your head.
If you lose your job, it doesn’t matter how you lost it. It’s your own fault. The company went under. A Bain-like hedge fund bought it and looted it and pumped up stock prices by kicking you and half the other employees out the door. You got sick. You got injured. You used up too much time in your bosses’ opinion taking care of a sick spouse, sick kids, a new baby, elderly parents. Whine all you want. It’s your fault. Now go away, loser, and leave the rest of us winners alone to enjoy our winnings without guilt or the slightest sense of obligation.
The Republicans’ rhetoric on unemployment---on all of life’s vicissitudes that routinely land people in need of help---is designed to make needing that help so shameful that we all become terrified of inviting that shame upon ourselves. And of course the surest way to wind up needing help is to lose your job and that makes losing a job the worst thing that could happen. We’re meant to be afraid to do anything that might cost us our job. We’re meant to feel so grateful just to have a job we’ll take anything the bosses’ dish out and accept whatever they deign to give us in the form of pay and benefits.
The object is to make us good employees, from the bosses’ point of view: Pliable, unquestioning, obedient, fearful, and cheap.
On top of this, it’s not enough that we’re afraid of losing our jobs through our own faults---and remember, it’s always our fault---we’re meant to be afraid of, resent, and outright despise anyone who might cost us our jobs: Boat-rockers, rabble-rousers, meddlesome liberal politicians, unionizers, any of our erstwhile fellow employees who’ve lost their jobs through their own fault and in the process possibly made us look bad in the bosses’ eyes.
And of course it goes beyond that. Our resentment, fear, and contempt is meant to extend to anyone, anywhere who’s lost their job and is asking for help. We’re meant to see them as losers and deadbeats, not worth our time or attention or aid. We’re meant to push them away so their bad luck won’t rub off. We’re meant to turn our backs on them, tell them to go away, leave us alone, we got problems of our own, mac, so we can go about our business of keeping our heads down, keeping our noses to the grindstone, taking whatever comes with thanks, and never, ever asking what’s wrong with a country that throws people away like this, leaves them to suffer and starve, just so that a few already rich assholes can get richer?
A hundred less than solitudinous years ago when I was in Boston working in a bookstore and in charge of our literature section, Avon Books was publishing a series of paperback editions of the great Latin American writers of the day. Jorge Amado, Julio Cortazar, Mario Vargas Llosa, many others. The covers were white with fragmented paintings on the front, all in a similar style, maybe by the same artist. They were bright and rich with lush greens and sugary browns dominating the motifs, calling up images of jungles and cinnamon skin. Employees could take home as our own any paperback we desired by tearing off the front covers, which would be sent back to the publishers and written off as discards I rarely took advantage of this perk and I didn’t with this set because books have feelings and the covers were too pretty, too evocative, too much a part of the appeal of the books But we were also allowed to borrow books, encouraged to, in fact. The company wanted us to be able to make knowledgeable recommendations to customers. I borrowed most of these books over the course of a month and became insufferably knowledgeable. At that time, that was the point. Showing off my knowledge. I still thought of myself as a playwright in the making. I read fiction for fun or homework but not to help learn a craft.
Like I said, I read most of the ones we had in the store. Maybe all of them. All of them but one. However many I read, there was at least one I didn’t get to.
I don’t know why I stopped before I got that one or why I didn’t start with that one, since it was the most famous. Maybe I was saving it because it was the most famous. Maybe I thought that because it was the most famous it didn’t serve my purpose as an intellectual showoff. Everybody knew that one. Most likely what happened, however, is I found something else I felt needed to read first.
I’ve read other books and stories by Marquez since. Autumn of the Patriarch.Love in the Time of Cholera. One Christmas when I was home from Iowa and it still seemed not just possible but likely I was about to become a novelist in my own right, Mom and Pop Mannion gave me his Collected Stories. I loved that book, for itself, for his sake, for what it seemed to promise for me and my career. Today I went down to the basement and retrieved it from the box where it had been stored since our move here from Syracuse, ten and a half years ago. A dozen other books in the box with it and it was the only one time and damp had touched, its cover slightly warped, a few of its back pages bloated. I put it between two heavy books, hoping it’ll flatten out. I’ll read a story or two from it tonight, and then I’ll open the copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude I just bought and finally begin that one.
Lawrence Wright, author of The Looming Tower and Going Clear, has written a play, Camp David, which is being performed at the Arena Stage in Washington, DC, and I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to see who’s playing Jimmy Carter.
There’s an irrationally hopeful part of me that keeps expecting that one of these days Paul Ryan will pop up in front of a camera and instead of announcing yet another version of his basic Starve the Little Children budget he’ll say, “Hey, folks! Guess what, I’ve been kidding all along. These ‘budgets’ of mine are jokes. I just wanted to see how appalling I could make them before the Political Press Corps noticed they don’t add up, they don’t even make sense, they certainly aren’t intended to be helpful and that rather than being the serious, thoughtful, center-right grown-up Republican they’ve been trying to present me as I’m a dangerous goofball and Right Wing tool. Doesn’t look like that’s ever going to happen. I could propose turning poor old people into Soylent Green and the Sunday talk show bobbleheads would only wonder why no Democrats were willing to even discuss a compromise with me on it.”
Just a few points here. I could, and will and do, go deep in the weeds on this sort of thing. But here’s pretty much all you need to know: his cuts to Pell grants–college tuition assistance for students from low-income families–comes under the section called “Expanding Opportunity.”
Strengthening the safety net is actually block granting SNAP (food stamps) and Medicaid. “Ending cronyism” is repealing Dodd-Frank. Orwell would blush.
At the diner. Woman at the counter regaling three old guys and the waitress with tales from her high school days, which I’d estimate at about thirty years ago.
“That’s what they called me in high school. Ass and Elbows. They all called me that. Ass and Elbows. My best friend got me a t-shirt that said that. Ass and Elbows. ‘Wear that proudly,’ she said, ‘Wear it proudly, cause that’s all any guy’s gonna see of you. Ass and elbows.’”
Coming to the bitter end of Peter Baker’s Days of Fire. Lots to think over. Hasn’t changed my mind that George W. Bush should never have been President. Wasn’t Baker’s intention that it should. But I’ll tell you what it has done.
Made me hope that if I search through the archives here I won’t find any posts in which I called Bush stupid or an idiot.