Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Is He Dead?
Also see Susan's review of A Delicate Balance
Late in his life, Mark Twain wrote numerous dark, bitterly cynical works. The last thing one would expect from him is a joyous cross-dressing farce, but indeed he wrote one: Is He Dead?, now receiving its Washington area premiere at the Olney Theatre in suburban Maryland.
The rediscovered 1898 play, adapted for modern audiences by David Ives, is a delightful trifle in the style of the grande dame of the genre, Brandon Thomas' 1892 Charley's Aunt, with some satiric tweaking of a world that values artists much more highly after they die. Twain also has the effrontery to use a real-life figureFrench painter Jean-François Millet (Jeffries Thaiss)as his protagonist, and he occasionally throws in a self-referential quip: Millet, unlike another Twain hero, has no interest in attending his own funeral.
Director Halo Wines keeps the complications bubbling agreeably. Millet is a struggling young artist at the time of the play, idolized by his friends and students but unable to sell his work and deeply in debt to the odious Bastien André (Richard Pilcher). When an empty-headed art patron announces that he only purchases works by deceased painters, Millet and his friends come up with a scheme to raise his prices and increase his sales.
In the central role, Thaiss spends most of the play in disguise as Millet's alleged "twin sister," a widow named Daisy Tillou. He gets to cut loose in Kathleen Geldard's voluminous gowns, especially a fuchsia number with vast leg o'mutton sleeves. Drag comedy may be an old gag, but it still earns its laughs.
The rest of the cast is less colorful, but just as entertaining. Eric Messner, Carlos Bustamante and David Frankenberger are Millet's rowdy, devoted friends (American, German, and Irish respectively); Pilcher is appropriately seedy; John Dow is the genteel if impoverished Papa LeRoux, father of pretty Marie (Elizabeth Jernigan) and curious Cecile (Tara Giordano); Nick DePinto is manic in several roles; and Julie-Ann Elliott and Peggy Yates are underused as Millet's art-loving landladies.
Jon Savage's ingenious scenic design incorporates both Millet's squalid studio and a gilded Parisian parlor, while Jarett C. Pisani's sound design adds to the humor.
Olney Theatre Center