CCP: Artist ‘dying’ to get popular in Twain farce

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.

It’s like this thing that never happened, totally happened, at Mud Creek

By John Lyle Belden

We know two things for certain: First, Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso were alive and in Europe during the first years of the 20th century, and second, comic legend Steve Martin has an exceptional wit and entertaining flair for the absurd.

These things considered, it was inevitable – in a Martinesque world much like our own – that Einstein would meet “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” in the play by Mr. Martin now on stage at Mud Creek Players through May 6.

When you arrive at the old barn – which hasn’t seen livestock in ages, but they call it that anyway – at 9740 E. 86th St., Indy, you will receive a program, and looking within, you will notice two things: First, that the director, Kelly Keller, is quite handsome. Perhaps it is Photoshop, perhaps moisturizer. Second, you will see the characters listed in order of appearance. This is important, as characters must appear in order for a play to happen. They should also arrive in order, but note that this is Paris and people like Einstein are forever altering history.

You will also notice the barman, barmaid, a local drunk who really should get his prostate checked and others engaged in interesting clever conversations on art and genius. Perhaps this is a European thing. And Picasso does show up, redeeming the apparent premise of the play, to learn the most important aspect of his career – that he should sign his drawings.

We also meet the greatest inventive mind of the 20th century, Charles Davernow Schmendiman. This alone should have you calling the box office.

By this point in the review you should notice two things: First, that I do like doing that “two things” thing, and second, that I’m not very good at being consistent.

I must warn you that when this comic drama of a dramatic comedy concludes, you will discover that the ladies and gentlemen are not who they have presented themselves to be. Einstein turns out to be Justin Lyon, a local actor, though he is quite convincing, and even shows us “the hair.” Likewise, Picasso was nicely impersonated by Brad Root, who, it turns out, does not have a single piece hanging in the Louvre. Zach Haloski should be commended for his striking resemblance to Schmendiman. We are also cleverly deceived by Eric Matter, Collin Moore, Monya Wolf, Savannah Jay, Robert C. Boston Jr., Susan Hill and Lexi Odle. It would be best not to mention that Brock Francis appears in this production, as it is a surprise. Fortunately, despite this allegedly being a barn, there were no pitchforks or torches, so the audience was very forgiving of the illusion portrayed on the stage – on the contrary, they quite enjoyed it.

For a pleasant evening of highly meaningful nonsense, call 317-290-5343 or visit www.mudcreekplayers.org.