This Mark Twain tale waited a century to hit the stage

by: COURTESY PHOTO: HART THEATRE - News-Times reviewers praise the performances of the cast -- pictured here left to right, Amanda Clark, Jan Rosenthal, Justin Campbell, Nick Hamilton, Ilana Roder, Laurence Cox, Devon Roberts and Sarah Keyes Chang -- which make this intended-comedy hilarious. If the world ever needed more Mark Twain, surely the time is now. For a few hours last Friday, missing airplanes, recently deceased hate peddlers and conspiracy theorists of all stripes receded into the background as HART Theatre’s opening night of “Is He Dead?” conducted us headlong into the world of French farce and away from modern troubling news. Director Paul Roder, Assistant Director Tyson Redifer and their cast succeeded in doing the one thing we demand of comedy — they made us laugh.

The show’s origins are a bit muddled. Twain wrote the original in 1898, but the work didn’t see the light of day until a diligent Twain scholar unearthed the manuscript more than 100 years later. Playwright David Ives simplified the script, adapting it for the modern audience and in 2007 it made its Broadway debut.

“Is He Dead?” is brimming with the tried and true elements of traditional farce. Starving artist Jean-Francois Millet and his protégées, faced with financial ruin at the hands of greedy art dealer Bastien Andres, fake Millet’s death to inflate the value of his paintings. Enter: cross-dressing, as Millet dons the persona and costumes of his bereaved (if nonexistent) twin sister, the widow Daisy Tillou. Doors slam, disguises abound, confusion rules the day, at the end of which all is revealed and goodness triumphs over evil.

The show is anchored by the four artists — American Agamemnon “Chicago” Buckner played by Nick Hamilton, German Hans “Dutchy” von Bismarck played by Laurence Cox, Irishman Phelim O’Shaughnessy played by Justin Campbell, and their fearless leader Jean-Francois Millet played by Devon Roberts.

While each plays his role to consistently humorous effect, it is only when Roberts emerges in drag that the audience shifts from mild chuckles to belly laughs. The comic level climbs not just at the absurdity of the Widow Tillou, but at the antics of his (her?) three buddies as they offer hands-on instruction in the feminine arts. Roberts is simply extraordinary, especially when he begins to believe his own shtick, reveling and preening coyly in response to the amorous attentions of his suitors.

A key subplot is introduced by the trio of Papa Leroux played by Aaron Morrow and his two daughters, Marie played by Sarah Keyes Chang and Cecile played by Amanda Clark. Chang plays the classic ingénue — sweet, lovely and fragile.

Clark’s best moments come early; her amazingly elastic facial expressions provide hilarious contrast to the relatively somber tone of the first few scenes. The opposite is true of Morrow, whose role really takes off in Act II when he moves from desperate old man to ardent, if unselective, lecher.

Dave Anctil makes his first-ever stage appearance as the evil Bastien Andres and brings admirable villainy to the role. Rian Turner plays three parts, but it is as the stereotypically effete British art buyer Basil Thorpe that his wheezing, nasal, supercilious performance really shines.

The costume team — Mary Gow, Kay Denlow, Karen Roder and Kayli Gow — and makeup designer Kahela Fickle faithfully capture the period and locale even when dealing with the gender-bending demands of the script.

“Is He Dead?” is so funny that we are looking forward to seeing it again at HART’s April 5 fundraiser, “HART Laughs at Art.” Comedy lovers should not miss this wonderful production — you may have to wait another 100-plus years before it is back on the scene.

Contract Publishing

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