Rhonda Clark directs “Is He Dead” under the hovering presence of authors Mark Twain and David Ives. In 2003 Mark Twain scholar Shelley Fisher Fishkin discovered Twain’s marvelous unfinished play – “Is He Dead” written in 1898. Although never produced, the play is an excellent example of Twain as a playwright. The timelessness of Twain in “Is He Dead” is just as hilarious as “Charley’s Aunt” and includes cross-dressing as well. “Is He Dead” originally had three acts and is a story of an artist who fakes his death in order to create value for his paintings. He then masquerades as his own sister in order to sell the art in the estate. The artist, Jean-Francois Millet is real although the play is entirely fictional. (Millet actually achieved recognition and financial security as an artist quite late in life and influenced upcoming artists such as Van Gogh). “Is He Dead” takes place much earlier in his life and the quality of Millet’s work is accurately conveyed by Twain and David Ives follows through.
David Ives adapted “Is He Dead” as a two-act play updated for the modern audience. The adaptation rings true especially because cross-dressing is just as funny to the audience of Twain as it is to the audience of Ives. It is a little different in interpretation perhaps because modern viewers take cross-dressing a little more seriously. The hilarious benevolence of Twain becomes the hysterical braggadocio of Ives. As in most comedies the first act tends to move slowly as the audience absorbs both background information and characterizations. The second act roars, and clearly “Is He Dead” is one that improves with maturity. Ives work may be best served when the actors sense more Twain in depiction of the wonderful characters they have both created. Or, more succinctly, the actors should focus on performing Twain which may better serves the intention of Ives.
Clark’s direction is technically striking with a beautiful set designed and created by Ben Hall. The costumes from Marilyn Ragan are superb as well, and this makes the play a joy to watch as well as a joy for acting inspiration. Dramaturg Brent Weber proves his invaluability allowing Clark to bring the show into sharp focus for the audience. Technically the show is just as it should be!
Clark cast “Is He Dead” brilliantly with David Burkhart in the role of Millet. Burkhart has the right touch, and although he tends to over-dominate the space, he exhibits an excellent grasp of the material. Shawn Hicks as Hans Von Bismarck or ‘Dutchy’ and Doug Monson as Agamemnon Buckner or ‘Chicago’ are excellent although a little too much slapstick tends to over-power the story line. Bob Burns as Papa Leroux is very nice, although he seems a little distant from his daughters. Rodonna Carter as Marie Leroux, the love interest of Millet and Jessica Bisel as Cecile Leroux are priceless princesses in their roles, accurately reflecting both Twain and Ives from the outset. Albert Bostick is the scoundrel, Bastien Andre and his mix of charm and cheat is quite fun to watch. Lindsey Rollins and Chris Burns are enjoyable as Madame Bathilde and Madame Caron. The giggling and inappropriate but subtle flirting from middle aged women will always be with us. Rollins and Burns complement Bisel and Carter perfectly. Terry Veal as Phelim O’Shaughnessy is, as always, in command of his role. As he joins with Monson and Hicks, the scenes become more frenetic, yet the actors maintain the control that allows the chaos to impress. C. W. Bardsher is wonderful as Charlie, The King of France, not to mention his characters of Basil Thorpe and Claude Riviere. He maintains great distinction in characterization, and gives all three veracity.
For Twain and Ives, it should never be said that ‘never the twain should meet’, for it is clearly great that they have met in this manner. This production of “Is He Dead” is clearly maturing and those elements of timing and ‘twaining’ will bring upcoming performances to life thanks to the thoughtful direction and vision of Rhonda Clark.
“Is He Dead” runs at Carpenter Square Theatre through April 26th, 2014. Carpenter Square is located at 800 W Main where parking is very easy. Visit Carpenter Square’s bar and enjoy the lobby art by photographer Donald B. Nevard. His photos of African wildlife are stirring. For reservations, visit www.carpentersquare.com or call 405-232-6500 for tickets. The next two weekends of “Is He Dead” will be a fabulous experience!