BWW Review: Mark Twain's IS HE DEAD? at GCT
Grayson Wittenbarger as Jean-Francois Millet
GCT loves doing seasonal shows. Since it's only weeks away from Halloween, what could be more fun than a melodramatic and satirical romp that focuses on a nasty villain and a man in a dress? Mark Twain wrote Is He Dead? in 1898 but the incredible fact is it wasn't published until 2003. Adapted by David Ives it received a production on Broadway in 2007 starring Norbert Leo Butz.
Mark Twain ... a playwright? This was my first surprise, as I am hooked on his novels and short stories. I never heard of a Mark Twain play. But the man was a genius and did have a very quaint sense of humor. As a lecturer he got close to the public and to the sound of their laughter. This may have stimulated him to write a play. His screwball humor does show up consistently in this piece. It has a definite European flavor taking place in France in the 1880s. American born and bred characters were the crux of his early writings, but in later travels he did spend time in Europe and also had great financial problems not unlike the main character in Is He Dead? Whether semi-autobiographical or not, the play is an unexpected treat.
This GCT production boasts a great cast and direction from seasoned pro Todd Nielsen, and GCT should have a sturdy hit on its hands.
Foolish to give away the entire plot, but at the core we encounter Jean-Francois Millet (Grayson Wittenbarger), a painter who cannot get arrested. He wants to marry Marie Leroux (Ashlee Abrams), but is flat broke. He owes money to dealer Bastien Andre (Ted Wells), as does Marie's father (Tom Hall). What to do as the debts must be paid within 24 hours? Millet's buddies Chicago (Joshua Evans), Dutchy (Austin LaCroix) and O'Shaughnessy (John David Wallis) see a way out and a chance to make a fortune. They insist that he fake his death, as a painter's value increases when he is dead. He can stay around painting and making a living in the guise of a twin sister. This is pretty much the storyline. Andre, resourceful villain that he is, eventually refuses to tear up the promisory note at the request of the sister and demands to take possession of Millet's paintings unless she agrees to marry him. Here's where the real fun begins.
Alex White as Charlie
In farce such as this, mistaken identities, fast entrances and exits and nonstop silly banter keep all the actors on their toes. Director Nielsen works at a near to frantic pace and pulls out all the stops, milking the comedic moments for all they are worth. Millet's sister, named Daisy, must learn proper etiquette as a lady in front of others. He must also learn to treat Marie, his intended, differently, especially when he kisses her as a woman. When she proclaims that Daisy looks like Millet and feels like him, she doesn't realize how right she is. Wittenbarger has a field day with the transformation and comically bumbles and sashays his way about falling over a divan as he tries to keep his hoop skirt down and desperately trying to keep his voice at a higher register. Wells is delightfully devious as Andre; Evans, LaCroix and Wallis are deliciously mischievous as the pals; Abrams and Cheryl Ann Carlson as her sister Cecile are perfectly 19th century proper; Cara Newman Ruyle and Barbara Trenn add more prim and proper behavior as two doting spinsters; a real scene stealer is Alex White in a great variety of roles. Charlie the butler is much fun to watch as well as his quick change into a stern, menacing inspector.
Angela Manke does splendid work with period costuming and JC Wendel has added some nice touches for the round with suspended works of art on the side walls.
The whole question of the value of art comes into play, as Twain always leaves us with a message. Greed for wealth is at the heart of the play, but isn't it vital to look at a painting and appreciate it for art's sake, without putting a price on it? One very funny example occurs when O'Shaughnessy holds up a painting of a dachsund. The small dog is pictured very, very long with an enormously long tail. It's a Millet, and the painting sells for thousands of pounds, but the bizarre artistic slant of the painter may be worth far more than the money paid in exchange. A satirical play also leaves you with something to think about as you leave the theatre.
Don't miss Is He Dead? through November 22 at GCT! It's a fun-filled evening for one and all.