Is He Dead?
Why was it not produced during Twain's lifetime (he died in 1910)? My guess is that it was considered a ripoff of the super-popular 1892 play Charley's Aunt, which ran for four years, both in London and in New York, and has been revived incessantly since then. Not that the plot is the same, but both feature a man in women's clothes as the source of most of the comedy, and Twain's play probably looked like an attempt to cash in on the cross-dressing genre.
I don't know if the title, Is He Dead?, is a sly reference to the 1897 incident that prompted the famous line "The report of my death was exaggerated" (often misquoted). Here, though, it applies to real-life painter Jean-François Millet (1814-1875), he of The Angelus and The Gleaners and The Sower fame.
The premise is clever, and taught me that what I thought was a 20th century phenomenonthe price of an artist's work skyrocketing after his or her deathis not new at all. We find Millet in his penniless garret days, in debt to an unscrupulous art dealer who has a contract allowing him to take any of Millet's paintings for 100 francs each by the next day if Millet doesn't come up with the cash he owes.
Millet has a cosmopolitan group of friends hanging around: "Chicago" the American, "Dutchy" the German, and O'Shaughnessy (you can guess from where). They try to convince a rich Englishman to buy some of Millet's paintings to get enough money to pay the debt, but he asks the title question, then demurs, saying that he only buys dead painters.
This of course leads to the plot: To fake Millet's death and make a fortune. They make it known that Millet has a terminal illness and has taken off for the Barbary Coast to spend his last days. (None of the characters ever knows where the Barbary Coast is, and this is the best running joke in the play, since I'm not sure where it is either.)
For reasons not entirely convincing, Chicago concocts a plan that Millet should disguise himself as his widowed sister, who comes to Paris when she learns of her brother's illness. The fact that Millet has no sister is no matter. The rest of the play is your typical mistaken-identity gender-confusion comedy.
The first act gets a little draggy (pardon the pun) and I was losing interest just before intermission. I expected a little more zippiness from David Ives. Not knowing the Twain original, I don't know if he abridged it, but he could have abridged it a little more. The second act, though, is livelier and funnier, and saves the play.
This production is very good in almost all respects. As I have come to expect from the Adobe Theater, the set (by Brian Hansen and Antonia Cardella), the props (Nina Dorrance), and the costumes and wigs (Carolyn Hogan) are all excellent. Loretta Robinson provides live musical accompaniment, which is quite welcome.
Brian Hansen, the director, keeps things moving and gets good performances out of almost everyone. My main quibble is that in the first act, the lead, Malcolm Stuart, has almost no charisma, neither as Millet nor as his "sister." Everybody else out-acts him, but he's supposed to be the star. Fortunately, he is much better in the second act.
Among the 11 other actors, I'd mention Ned Record as Chicago, for exuberance; Rick Wiles for friskiness (at his age); Tyler Alan Strand for dastardliness; and Isaac Christie, who is a very charming "Irishman." Everyone else does well, too. Why a couple of characters use French accents while others use American accents, and why the Englishman sounds like an American, well, who cares? It's a comedy, after all. One I think you'll enjoy.
Is He Dead?, a play by Mark Twain adapted by David Ives, is being presented at the Adobe Theater, 9813 Fourth Street NW in Albuquerque, through October 6, 2013. Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00, Sundays at 2:00. Info at www.adobetheater.org or 505-898-9222.