A night of fake mustaches, cross-dressing, revenge, French accents, and staged deaths ensued at Adams Pool Theatre in Mark Twain’s play “Is He Dead?” which ran through Sunday. With clever staging by director Olivia M. Munk ’16 and hilarious acting, the production was intriguing and funny, perfectly executing Twain’s witty script.
Though originally written in 1898, “Is He Dead?” did not gain prominence until its first performance in 2007, only a few years after playwright David Ives adapted and published the script. The story begins in 19th-century France as Jean-Francois Millet (Dylan J. Peterson ’17), an impoverished and unsuccessful painter, is struggling to sell his artwork. Bastein Andre (Tom M. Keefe ’15), an art dealer and also his nemesis, demands that either Millet pay back his debt in money or give his lover (Brooke E. Sweeney ’17) to Andre in marriage. In an effort to resolve the debt, Millet and his partners in crime, Agamemnon “Chicago” Buckner (Eli B. Schleicher ’17), Hans “Dutchy” von Bismarck (Julia E. Canick ’17), and Phelim O’Shaughnessy (Colin A. Mark ’17) plan an elaborate plot to fake Millet’s death in order to make a sale to a painter who claims he will never buy from a living artist.
During the period of Millet’s supposed illness and death, he disguises himself as “the widow” Daisy Tillou, his fictional twin, complete with fake breasts, a bright pink dress, and a blonde wig. Peterson’s performance as the widow was spot-on; his movements were painfully self-aware as he shifted to hide his hairy legs, sat gracefully down on the couch, and attempted to talk delicately “like a lady.” His appearance as a woman was clearly awkward but added humor to the already jocular lines.
Julius G. B. Ross ’17 also gave a stellar performance, switching between four different characters, including Basil Thorpe, who buys Millet’s “posthumous” paintings for 100,000 francs; Charlie, the widow’s servant; and the King of France, who makes a dramatic and hilarious appearance at the end. Ross’s versatility in acting was wonderful as he repeatedly came on and off the stage as different characters, impressively donning new accents and costumes.
The fact that the production did not take itself too seriously made it all the more captivating. The acting was fiery, witty, and hilarious, from Mark’s purposefully over-the-top performance as Phelim to Keefe’s exaggerated French accent as Andre. The characters also frequently broke the fourth wall; when interjecting funny comments, a blazing spotlight emphasized the change. At other moments, light design by Joey R. Longstreet ’16 complemented the tone, with bright lights accompanying the cast’s loud and energetic performances and occasional dim illumination of the few serious scenes.
The set, designed by Renee E. Zhan ’16, was simple and whimsical, complete with just a paint-splattered couch, fresh flowers and a vase, a wine bottle, and a backdrop with Millet’s paintings. The small scale of the stage and the commonplace props gave a cozy feel to the production.
“Is He Dead?” was a high-energy and light-hearted production that perfectly captured Twain’s tale of 19th-century France. The production’s success can be attributed largely to the talent of the actors; their believability and hilarity was the pinnacle of the play, even with all the bright costumes, affected accents, and gender mix-ups on stage.