Mark Twain's 'Is He Dead?' finds life in second act

The Baltimore Sun

Mark Twain's sadness and worries about money are all right there - hidden under the cross-dressing plot that puts a cigar-chomping gent in hoop skirts and hair bows, beneath the satirical swipes at the French, the art world and Limburger cheese.

Is He Dead?, a recently discovered 1898 comedy by the great humorist and adapted by David Ives, has all the sparkle and brilliance of a shooting star. But it leaves behind a trail of dust, stones and space debris.

In the farce, currently receiving a solid production at Olney Theatre Center, Twain cheekily placed a beloved, recent painter, Jean Francois Millet, in stage center.

The playwright has Millet fake his own death to drive up the price of his artwork, thereby rescuing himself and his friends from ruinous debts.

Of course, it's difficult to revel in public adulation from the grave, so in Twain's play, Millet poses as his widowed twin sister so he can enjoy his own fame and fortune.

(The real Millet died in 1875. Or so we are told.)

Those who see the play and who also are familiar with the writer's biography can't help discerning in this frolic Twain's struggles to pay off mountainous business debts and his gloom at losing his daughter, Suzy, to meningitis. Only authors who themselves have been depressed are likely to portray death as an escape - however playfully.

A comedy has a complex and delicate structure that must be carefully built, and in this case, it takes most of the first act. For a perilously long period, the humor is moderate, the laughs subdued. But, after intermission, when actor Jeffries Thaiss is living as Millet's fictitious sister, the production achieves the lightness and unpredictable drift of a dandelion puff, scattered, perhaps, by the gusts of hilarity from the audience.

Thaiss is fine as Millet, but really comes into his own as the widow Daisy Tillou, whom Twain uses to skewer gender affectations. For instance, Daisy scares off a would-be suitor by pretending to "beautify" herself for his visit. First she puts on her wig, then her false teeth, and then pretends to install a fake eye and prosthetic legs.

"Is any part of her genuine?" the suitor asks himself, before addressing Daisy: "I wouldn't marry you if you were worth a billion. You're not a woman - you're a kit."

Similarly, Tara Giordano is funniest in her trousers role. She plays the jealous Cecile, who attempts to determine her lover's faithfulness by disguising herself as a French inspector of police. Giordano's accent, gestures and especially her pompous little mustache are straight out of The Pink Panther.

Richard Pilcher manages to play a classic villain from melodrama without once going over the top. Elizabeth Jernigan makes Millet's fiancee extremely credulous without sacrificing the character's intelligence.

Jon Savage's set is gorgeous but confusing. Interiors of Millet's garret and Daisy's lavish home are exquisitely detailed, but at each wing, a mysteriously shrouded pile reaches from floor to ceiling. The area below the stage is lined with worn artifacts from the era, including a rain barrel and antique wheelchair. I have no idea what the piles and props signify.

Is He Dead? is a rueful joke about how an artist's works increase in value after their creator's death, and in Twain's case, that certainly has borne out.

It's true that he was immensely popular during his lifetime, but not so popular that he didn't have to scrimp and save and wander homeless throughout Europe for a decade to pay his debts.

He died in 1910, and 77 years later, a box of his letters - not a manuscript for a novel, but his letters - fetched $500,000 at auction.

As always, Mark Twain had the last laugh.

IF YOU GO

Is He Dead? runs through March 8 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays; 2 p.m., 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m., 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $26-$49. Call 301-924-3400 or go to olneytheatre.org.

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