Is he dead?
Local director, actors pour hearts, souls and tongues into cheek for Twain farce
Paul Roder freely admits his theatrical tastes tend toward the wacky.
'My school is Looney Tunes, the Marx Brothers, I love that kind of comedy,' he says. 'I just adore it.'
It's that light, whimsical flair that led him to 'Is He Dead?' a Mark Twain comedy adapted by David Ives, for the Central Beaverton Neighborhood Association Committee's third annual summer production.
Initially conceived by Twain in 1898, the play strikes Roder, the production's director and producer, as a farce with decidedly modern undertones.
'To me it reads like a Neil Simon script,' he says, referring to the writer of such iconic productions as 'The Odd Couple' and 'Barefoot in the Park.' 'It has a lot of those really quick, witty exchanges. Some are partially French-farce based. I think Twain drew from a lot of styles and schools of thought.'
After rain postponed the planned debut performance last Saturday at Schiffler Park, the play will open tonight at 6 in the Beaverton City Library Auditorium, 12375 S.W. Fifth St.
Subsequent performances are scheduled for July 23, 24, 30 and 31 at 2 p.m. An outdoor show is scheduled for Wednesday, Aug. 3, at 6 p.m., and Roder says he hopes to reschedule the postponed Schiffler Park performance for an early August date. All performances are free of charge.
'Is He Dead?' is a fictionalized take on French painter Jean-Francois Millet as an impoverished artist in Barbizon, France. With the help of his colleagues, Millet stages his death in an effort to increase the value of his paintings before returning - incognito and dressed as a woman.
Peppered with devices such as cross-dressing, mistaken identities and romantic deceptions, the satire-farce of 'Is He Dead?' focuses on themes of greed, fame and the true value of art.
'The idea is that a painter is much more valuable when he's dead than alive,' Roder says during a break in a recent afternoon rehearsal in the library auditorium. 'The problem is he has to come back (from 'dying') to collect.'
Roder, 54, says the production, which is co-sponsored by the Tualatin Hills Park and Recreation District, should work well with the audience mix the summer series attracts.
'It's perfect for summer,' says Roder, a Central Beaverton resident. 'There are a lot of colorful characters and interesting costumes. Kids won't get (the plot twists) but they can laugh at the funny man in a dress.'
That funny man is Scott Kelly, a Beaverton native who plays Millet himself.
A graduate of Sunset High School, where he performed in a production of 'Oklahoma,' Kelly says through the rehearsals he, like his character, gradually became more comfortable dressed like a woman.
Given that's his character's status quo for 75 percent of the performance, it's probably a good thing.
'At first, he's falling over and not walking straight, breaking character,' Kelly says. 'As the show goes on, and (Millet) gets more and more feminine, it becomes a little natural.'
Relying on intuition when casting for the production, Roder says he seeks a sense of fearlessness as actors with varying levels of experience try out for roles.
'I have a sense for chemistry,' he says, noting he looks for actors who are 'malleable, open to direction, have a lack of fear, a good vibe - somebody who's a team player.'
Sam Jones, who plays the part of Hans 'Dutchy' von Bismarck, says once the chemistry is there, actors can help each other through momentary lapses of memory and stage fright.
'Paraphrasing is always gonna happen,' he says of the 'osmosis' of memorizing lines and dialog. 'Sometimes you miss three pages (of dialog) on stage. But it all flows together eventually.'
'It's a very fine line,' he adds, 'between being terrified and knowing what to do.'
Those who attended last year's Beaverton Civic Theatre production of 'A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,' might recognize the name of Penuel Corbin, who played a citizen, Roman guard and a eunuch in the production.
The Beaverton native, who's sticking to the part of Phelin O'Shaugnessy in 'Is He Dead?' says there's no real way to practice for stage fright.
'It's something you can't anticipate until the first night, (at least) until you figure out how to use adrenaline to your advantage and apply it to one play,' he says. 'It's predominantly fun at this point.'
Roder, whose wife, Karen, designed the costumes and manages the props, says the sense of camaraderie that emerges from community theater productions pays off further down the line.
'The reward for me is the experience you walk away with, and then 10, 15 years or more later to see the friendships that lasted - and to know (the actors) learned something. That's a success.'
It's show time
What: 'Is He Dead?' - a comedy by Mark Twain adapted by David Ives
Who: The Central Beaverton Neighborhood Association Committee
Where: Beaverton City Library Auditorium, 12375 S.W. Fifth St.
When: July 21, 28 at 6 p.m.; July 23, 24, 30 and 31 at 2 p.m.; Aug. 3 at 6 p.m. at Camille Park, off Scholls Ferry Road and Crystal Street; Schiffler Park show date to be announced
Sponsors: City of Beaverton, Tualatin Hills Park and Recreation District