By John Lyle Belden
Mark Twain’s almost-forgotten farce, “Is He Dead?” has come alive in Fishers, thanks to Carmel Community Players.
Twain, the celebrated American author and humorist, wrote the play while traveling Europe and had planned on staging it in 1898, but those performances never happened. The script was rediscovered in 2002 and, adapted by noted playwright David Ives, finally reached Broadway in 2007.
Now it’s here.
A fictional version of actual master painter Jean-Francois Millet (played by Jaime Johnson) struggles to get noticed or even sell a single painting from his shabby home in Barbizon, France. His international circle of disciples, Chicago (Matt Hartzburg), Dutchy (Adam Powell) and O’Shaughnessy (Kelly Keller) recognize his genius, as do landladies Bathide (Lucinda Ryan) and Caron (Susan Hill), who don’t mind getting art for rent payments. But moneylender Bastien Andre (Larry Adams) wants real Francs in payment for debts owed, and threatens to foreclose not only on Millet’s studio, but also Monsieur Leroux (Keven Shadle), whose daughter he desires. However, Marie (Morgan Morton) is repulsed by Andre and is in love with Millet. Meanwhile, her sister Cecile (Monya Wolf) has her eye on Chicago.
Desperate for a way to quickly raise thousands of Francs, our artists get an idea after a clueless English art buyer (Dave Bolander in one of a number of hilarious roles) states that genius is only rewarded after the artist has died. Chicago then talks Millet into “contracting an illness” so horrible as to guarantee publicity of his impending “death.” Meanwhile, Millet appears in a dress as his twin sister, the Widow Tillou, to inherit the inevitable riches.
This being a comedy, of course, things don’t go entirely as planned.
Twain’s wry humor is woven throughout this satirical farce, and little moments of 19th-century style silliness work in the overall context. Johnson plays Millet as a down-on-his-luck everyman who just wants what’s due him, playing it straight against the comic antics of his students – and his scenes in drag are “Some Like it Hot” hilarious. Chicago, our lone American character, appears to be Twain’s surrogate in the story, a fast-talking charming schemer in the mold of Tom Sawyer, and Hartzburg turns on the charm in the role. Powell is like a caricature of a caricature, but is so likable it works. Wolf gets in some great moments with the old girl-disguised-as-man gag. And Johnson is delectably “boo-hiss!” worthy as our top-hatted melodrama villain, complete with twirled mustache.
Direction is by Mark Tumey, who said he came to love the play while portraying Andre in a production in Arizona.
The show’s social commentary on art and fame resonates a bit today, but mostly this is just a fun evening with the work of one of America’s greatest writers. As CCP is still seeking a full-time home, performances for this play are at Ji-Eun Lee Music Academy, 10029 E. 126th St., Suite D, in Fishers, through June 24. Call 317-815-9387 or visit carmelplayers.org.