Review: IS HE DEAD at Olathe Civic Theatre Association

By Mark Twain and David Ives

By: May. 13, 2023
Review: IS HE DEAD at Olathe Civic Theatre Association

Have you ever heard an old joke that begins with something like "A Priest, a Minister, and a Rabbi walk into a bar...?" Olathe Civic Theatre Association's new production of an almost unknown and only recently renewed farce called IS HE DEAD? (written in 1898) is kind of like that old joke. The playwright was Samuel L. Clemens' as his famous and revered Mark Twain character.

IS HE DEAD? has not a Rabbi, Priest, a Minister, or a bar. It does have four young starving artists in Victorian era France and a scheme. The plot and several subplots sound a great deal like that familiar joke. Anything with the name Mark Twain on it draws a crowd. "Twainiacs" like me will always show up. This particular piece of Clemens' literary output languished inside a file cabinet at the Bancroft Library of the University of California, Berkeley for a century.

Review: IS HE DEAD at Olathe Civic Theatre Association
Brent Custer and Bianca Bevis from

It is difficult to know what to say about IS HE DEAD. It is a bold choice by Director Charlotte Gilman and the OCTA Board. Gilman has chosen to direct IS HE DEAD? in the imagined style of the time. It is easy to imagine in a touring Chautauqua tent show in rural Kansas or Missouri at the end of the nineteenth century. Everything from stage movement, faux foreign accents, costumes, sets, and characterizations are very broadly drawn. The "proof of the pudding" is the loud cackles that erupt from the audience over almost all of the plays two hour running time.

IS HE DEAD? is based on an expanded and re-imagined short story that Clemens wrote in1893. Three, young, starving, student artists and their friend, Master Jean-Francois Millet (although being pretty good artists) are having difficulty selling their art. These guys are months behind in their rent and their landlord, a Snidely Whiplash stock character, is demanding to be paid by tomorrow. The villain doesn't really expect to be paid. Instead, he expects to kick the artists out, confiscate the art, and run off with Millet's girlfriend.

Suddenly, a lightning bolt of an idea strikes. It seems that dead artists are paid multiples of what live ones get for their art. They decide one of them will play dead to swindle art dealers into overpaying for the work. He will masquerade as his own widowed twin sister in drag. Well, you get the idea.

Review: IS HE DEAD at Olathe Civic Theatre Association
Kyle Tichenor in IS HE DEAD

The actors are Brent Carter, Drew Jones, Scott Turner, Tony Francisco, Kyle Tichenor, Bianca Bevis, Liz Hollan, Craig Aikman, Josh Jackson, Kali Jackson, and Patty Whitlock. Set Design by Andy Kling.

Back to the birthing of IS HE DEAD. Sam Clemens was a working man's writer. I suspect he used Jean-Francois Millet as a character because he was popular at the time and had recently passed away in 1875. It is also likely that Clemens was aware of another similar play called CHARLEY'S AUNT which debuted in the UK in 1893. It is essentially the same idea as SOME LIKE IT HOT in the 1950s.

This play was written during a terribly down period for Clemens. He was a great writer and stand-up comic (then called a lecturer). Clemens built an extravagant home at Nook Farm in Hartford Connecticut. The home required so many servants it was cheaper for the family to live in a European hotel. They closed-up the property in 1891 and toured Europe and the world for the next ten years.

Clemens was a terrible businessman, but a great working writer. It was unusual in that period for anyone but the son of riches to make a living that way. One gets the impression he worked really hard at it. In 1893, a depression hit. Olivia Clemens was already ill with Potts Disease. Sam's health began to decline. He undertook a world lecture tour to pay off his debts at Livy's insistence.

In early 1896, Clemens' oldest daughter, Susy, begged to stay home rather than go on one of their extended tours. They assented if she could be looked after by Olivia's sister and the rest of the family remained in Europe. Susy was 24 and had just graduated from Vassar. Unfortunately, she contracted spinal meningitis and died. The family rushed home, but found Susy already interred.

Jean Clemens, the youngest daughter, was an epileptic. The Clemens returned to Europe seeking medical care and to live the hotel life. By 1898 when this play was written, the Clemens were living in Vienna Austria. Sam and the family were having a difficult time recovering from Susy's death.

During this period, Sam tried to get back to writing. He aspired to be a playwright, but had never been very successful except for one piece inspired by his Mother's relative James Lampton. He attempted a novel called "The Mysterious Stranger" (never finished), a play based on an earlier novel about Joan of Arc, and IS HE DEAD. Clemens shopped both plays to various producers and eventually sold rights to both properties. They remained unproduced.

Stanford Professor Shelley Fisher Fishkin discovered IS HE DEAD IN Clemens' files and produced it with playwright David Ives in late 2007 at the Lyceum Theatre on Broadway. It lasted 105 performances.

IS HE DEAD? continues at OCTA until May 23. Tickets can be purchased on the OCTA website.

Photo Credit: OCTA


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From This Author - Alan Portner

Al Portner is regional editor for Broadway World – Kansas City.  He is a retired career journalist and media executive who has written for publication over more than 40 years. Portner has p... (read more about this author)


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