Sunday, February 21, 2010

Is He Dead

Twain’s “new comedy,” ‘IS HE DEAD?” on stage at Beck

The question anyone looking at the heading of this review should ask is, “How did Mark Twain write a new comedy. Isn’t he dead?”

Well, Twain didn’t just write ‘IS HE DEAD?’ He scribbled the piece in 1898. He had previously written ‘COLONEL SELLERS,’ which became a box-office success. But, before his newest work opened, London’s Bram Stoker Theatre, where ’DEAD’was to be staged, burned down. And, that was the end of that.

Well, not quite. In 2002, Dr. Shelley Fisher Fishkin, a Twain expert who is a professor at Stanford University, discovered the long-forgotten script in the Twain archives amidst a dusty collection of inferior theatrical attempts.

The script was given to David Ives to do an adaptation, which had a Broadway opening in 2007. That production had some positive critical reactions, but was generally viewed as being out of date with references and cornpone humor that were not for modern audiences.

The story is set in 1840s Paris, and fictionalizes the non-death of real-life painter Jean-Francois Millet. To help himself and his debt-ridden friends, Millet fakes his passing to inflate the value of his paintings. He impersonates his imaginary sister, a widow named Daisy Tillou. Millet's contrivances grow more absurd until the moment he's caught dancing in drag on his own coffin.

Besides the datedness of the material, it is a melodrama. Melodrama requires just the right attitude in staging. It is a theatrical form which calls for double identities, physical exaggeration, lots of slamming of doors as characters run on and off stage while often returning momentarily in different clothing and even as members of the opposite sex. There are stock characters: the pretty heroine, the stud hero, the villain (complete with a mustache and dressed in black) and some cartoon characters who add to the laughter. This is the non-talky ‘PERILS OF PAULINE’ and the Mark Brothers comedies.

‘IS HE DEAD’ contains all the requisite melodrama pieces parts.

Under the direction of Matthew Earnest, the Beck production reaches an acceptable, if not a highlight level. Many in the cast just don’t seem to understand the need to be over-the-top and to exaggerate all their actions, not just the asides, affronts and preplanned gestures. This is surprising, because Earnest is a superb director, as was proven with his productions of ‘OUR TOWN’ and ‘PETER PAN’ at Porthouse Theatres.

Nick Koesters knows melodrama and has the ability to play with characterizations. As both Jean-FrancoisMillet and Widow DaisyTillou, Koesters does his thing and does it well. It’s worth seeing the show just to see his cross-dressing charade. The rest of cast ranged from good to almost acceptable.

Don McBride’s set worked well, Melissa Owens’ costumes were era correct, Joseph Carmola’s lighting was appropriate, and Richard Ingraham’s sound effects were on-target.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘IS HE DEAD?’ is one of those plays that I have difficulty figuring out why a theatre would pick to stage. But, pick it Beck did. Even with the low level of the script, the production could have been a lot more fun.