Are they dead? Not once Act II kicks into gear. Water Tower Theatre tickles Spring’s fancy with an unusual farce offering, playwright David Ives’ adaptation of the Mark Twain next to forgotten play Is He Dead. Chock-full of some of the region’s brightest, most versatile comic talents, some of them delivering hilarious performances, it’s worth enduring the stodginess of Is He Dead’s Act I to enjoy the hysterical cascade of roller-coaster delight that erupts in Act II. Kevin Moore, Ben E. Bryant, R. Bruce Elliott, Jessica Cavanagh, Elizabeth Kaminski, Mark Shum, Randy Pearlman, Jane Willingham, Nancy Sherrard, Shane Strawbridge, Paul Taylor. That clutch of comics can brew up some genuine funny, clowning solo or in ensemble formation. So what’s up, er down, with Act I?
Solve the mystery in the history. A deeply depressed Mark Twain wrote Is He Dead in 1898 in three weeks in Vienna, where he moved to recuperate from bankruptcy and the 1896 death of his favorite daughter. Written in three acts, the play was discovered in mothballs in 2002 by Stanford English professor Dr. Shelley Fisher Fishkin. Never published, never performed, with good reason. Curiously derivative of Charley’s Aunt, Brandon Thomas’s popular 1892 cross-dressing comedy, Twain’s original featured twenty-four characters, not counting walk-ons. He understood it presented challenges; text notes included, “Do whatever you like to make this work.” Respected widely today as a novelist, Twain had found lucrative success in playwriting. His 1874 play Colonel Sellers earned him more annual income than all his books combined, according to Dr. Fishkin. Yet there were structural challenges in Is He Dead that necessitated adaptation by another playwright. Enter David Ives, master modern playwright and adapter.
“It has a great idea,” Mr. Ives allowed. “In movie terms, ‘La Bohème’ meets ‘Tootsie.’ But even at first reading I thought it really does need help, which is not surprising, because Twain had little practice with dramatic construction. The construction is like a shack that is not very well buttressed; at the slightest touch pieces of it would fall off. Three acts were reduced to two; 24 separate roles, not counting extras, were pruned to 16 and assigned to a cast of 11.”
Even shortened and spiffed up a bit, Act I doesn’t light any creative fires. Too much exposition, not enough action or conflict or in depth characterization. Serious or comic? Hard to tell. A light-hearted farce about people starving in French garrets? And a pushy character named “Chicago”, minus explanation? The main character, French painter Jean-Francois Millet (The Gleaners, The Angelus) enters almost as an afterthought and fails, as written, to engage the audience’s hearts and minds much. It’s not until his multi-cultural bumpkin companions convince him to fake his own death and dress as a woman, as his fictitious sister Daisy, that the whole affair springs up out of the doldrums. Sadly, on opening night, a reasonable percentage of the audience left at intermission. Please stay! Buy a glass of wine in the lobby. ACT II is well worth the wait!
Charming, almost elfin, comically wise Mark Shum fades into the background scenery as Millet in Act I, through no fault of his own. But when he steps out of the boudoir in a full hoop-skirted frilly pink dress, curly blonde wig and make-up to match in full disguise, settle into your seat for a wholly unsophisticated but genuinely funny performance. Shum’s madcap zaniness as Daisy Tillou is just the start. Dueling courting scenes up the ante. Aging hypochondriac Papa Leroux (R. Bruce Elliott), Daisy’s lame suitor, finds “polygamy” joyful with daffy, loquacious Mme.’s Bathilde and Caron (played with full-busted fervor and snappy timing by Jane Willingham and Nancy Sherrard). Then the lascivious, usurious attentions of villainous Bastien Andre (played with ludicrous, deadpan solemnity by comic maestro Randy Pearlman), around the center stage coffin supposedly containing Millet, kick this farce into high gear. Shum’s Millet disguised as Daisy cleverly escapes them both, tops everything off with a positively unforgettable climactic moment, not to be shared and spoiled here. Paul Taylor disturbs every scene he enters with impeccable, delightful flair, whether it’s as a pouffy French art collector, a smarmy police investigator, or the effete, clueless king of France in splendiferous attire. Elizabeth Kaminski also plays the amusing gender-bending game with verve, in a romantic sub-plot involving the “Chicago” character (a lively catalyst in Kevin Moore). Elegant in all black hoop-skirted funereal glamour, Jessica Cavanagh plays Millet’s suffering sweetheart and all-time good sport Marie. The good guy does win that sweet gal, after all, at final curtain. Seeming to exist mostly to move furniture, Millet’s large paintings and his coffin, Ben E. Bryant ekes all he can out of a stale limburger cheese joke as “Dutchy”, like Shane Strawbridge does as a stereotypical dumb, pugnacious Irishman, exemplifying culture-based humor about as far away from politically correct as a Klan meeting.
Possibly the star of this production is the marvelous set by Clare Floyd Devries, assisted by Jen Gilson Gilliam and Joseph Cummings. Act I is a rambling shamble of a poor artist’s studio, with scuffed wooden floors, raw nooks and crannies and random easels overflowing with blown up reproductions of Millet’s poignantly evocative paintings. Act II transforms the entire set into a classy, elegantly appointed Paris drawing room with white tile flooring and tall French doors opening to the outside, upstage, with a Empire fountain statue leading to gardens behind. Lighting by David Natinsky ranges from dreary and shadowed in Act I to bright and crisp in Act II, supporting the play’s shift from morose to manic. Costumes, particularly the finely detailed, elaborate women’s dresses and Paul Taylor’s suit as the art collector dandy, fit the mood, tone and style of this mid 19th century play with roguish flair. (Aaron Patrick Turner) Forgive Water Tower Theatre, its fine cast, director James Lemons and adapter David Ives for Act I of Is He Dead. They are doing the best they can. You MUST stick around to enjoy the fine work and winning tomfoolery of Act II.
Is He Dead, adapted by David Ives from Mark Twain’s dreadful original, runs through April 25 at the Addison Theatre Centre, which is located at 15650 Addison Road in Addison, Texas. Box Office: 972.450.6232, or http://www.watertowertheatre.org
Historical references about Mark Twain as playwright and David Ives’ comments about adapting the script gleaned from 12/09 NYTimes articles by Jesse Green and 12/10/2007 review by Ben Brantley.
About playwright David Ives: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Ives
(And a big thank you to James Lemons and Terry Martin for producing a comic play that is not set in a New York or London apartment nor requires its cast to speak with British accents.)