by Vicki Paris Goodman
How thrilling it must have been when Mark Twain scholar Shelley Fisher Fishkin discovered an unknown never-produced play authored by Twain in a file cabinet. And it happened while she was doing research earlier this very decade. Of course, the work might have been a bust– hence, its relegation to the file cabinet. But no, Is He Dead? turns out to be a comic play of rare quality, as entertaining as they come.
ICT artistic director Shashin Desai must have had the most fun directing the West Coast premiere of this biting satire on the art world.
Twain picked a real 19th century French painter, Jean-Francois Millet, to be the initially unfortunate subject of his zany romp.
In Is He Dead?, Millet (Perry Ojeda) is recognized by many for his superlative talent but can’t seem to sell his paintings. He is starving and indebted to callous nogoodnik Bastien Andre (Steve Marvel), an art dealer and loan shark. Millet wants nothing more than to paint, make a decent living and marry his lady love Marie (Suzanne Petrela).
Enter an interested buyer who decides not to invest in Millet’s work when he finds out Millet is still living! Say what?! It’s true. So Millet’s devoted students concoct a plan to make him rich. They kill him off (not literally) and bring him back in the form of his “identical twin sister” (think about it), the widow Tillou. The name affords Twain the opportunity to create lines of dialogue such as, “That’s Tillou to you.” Ahem.
There’s more where that one came from, like: “The deader he is, the better he is,” and the discovery of a dirty remnant used to clean the chimney but mistaken for art and therefore designated “a sootprint.” Oy.
When actor Ojeda transforms himself from Millet into Tillou, both the character and the play switch from heavy with the burden of Millet’s sorry situation to silly beyond words. Millet was respectable yet hapless, struggling just to eat and keep his creditor at bay. Tillou is larger than life, an Auntie Mame among women, a force to be reckoned with. Picture a man-sized woman with a masculine complexion and a hearty sarcasm wearing a pink Victorian dress complete with matching feathered headdress. All the more ridiculous when she is sought by countless men, including, to her revulsion and our delight, the Snidely Whiplash-esque Andre.
The versatile Ojeda is spectacular in both roles– kindly and charismatic as Millet, commanding and hysterically funny as Tillou.
Even the first and second act sets, by scenic designer Stephen Gifford, contrast in the extreme. Millet’s pre-demise dwelling is dingy and spare. Three months and many sold paintings later, Tillou’s flat is spacious and opulent.
ICT’s exceptional cast also includes Chip Bent, Blake Silver and Brian Stanton, as Millet’s less-than-artistically-talented, but undeniably street-smart, students. Jeanine Anderson and Terra Shelman play two adoring neighbor ladies. Marie’s father and younger sister– a self-professed gumshoe in the making– are played by Jerry Hoffman and Jules Hartley. Amazing cast member Joe Fria handles four diverse roles, including that of the art collector who will only buy the work of dead artists, and none other than the King of France.
So how does Millet manage to fend off Tillou’s suitors and reclaim his identity so that he can paint once again and marry Marie? You’d best see the play to find out.
Is He Dead? elicited a steady stream of laughs that, collectively, can only be the product of a Twain-caliber wit. What a gem. Thank you, Professor Fishkin, for nosing through that file cabinet!
Is He Dead? continues at International City Theatre in the Long Beach Performing Arts Center, located at 300 E. Ocean Blvd., through May 24. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm; Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $32 and $37 on Thursdays; $37 and $42 on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Call (562) 436-4610 for information and reservations or visit ICT’s website at www.ictlongbeach.org.