WEST VALLEY — Is He Dead? is an intriguing historical artifact. Written by legendary write Mark Twain in 1898, it wasn’t until the 2003 that the piece was finally published as a novel. A few years later, David Ives adapted the play for the modern stage and finally mounted the play on Broadway in 2007. In spite of generally positive reviews, the show petered out after a short run of 105 performances. Hale Centre Theatre’s latest production is well produced, but the script displays some flaws that help explain its short run.
The play has a promising premise: a french painter, Jean-François Millet (played by Ben Abbot), lives in a studio in Paris with three international students, slaving away creating masterpieces underneath a contract to the villainous Bastien Andre (Michael Hohl). Millet and Andre are in love with the sweet Marie Leroux (Eden Benson), who is already promised to Millet, but whose father is deeply in debt to Andre. Distraught, Millet scrambles to sell his paintings, but is unable to find a buyer willing to spend any sum of money on a living artist, valuing only the works of men who are already dead. In a flash of inspiration, Millet’s student Chicago (Rusty Bringhurst) concocts a plan to fake Millet’s death to inflate the value of his work and earn enough money to pay off the debts of his fiance’s father. There is a catch, however. Doing so will require Millet to don a disguise, and it’s only minutes until Millet is dressed head to toe in pink satin introducing himself as Millet’s twin sister. Confusion, mistaken identities, and other antics follow as Millet struggles to hide his identity, break the draconian contract with Andre, and console his mourning fiancé.
Director Eric Jensen has assembled an energetic cast, but their enthusiasm is not enough to carry the show through nearly forty minutes of exposition. A certain amount of set up is expected in any farce, but the first act borders on tedious. Not trusting the audience to keep up with the fairly simple premise, the playwright includes forced monologues where characters directly address the audience and explain their thoughts on the situation. It’s not until Millet begins acting out the role of his own twin that the show begins to pick up steam, and that is just a scant 15 minutes before intermission.
The second act is a vast improvement from the first as the action picks up. Abbot’s feminine interpretation is excellent, from hip swinging gait to elaborate hair tosses. A particularly memorable scene with a fake leg and imaginary glass eye was one of the funniest of the night. Kylee Wood’s portrayal of Cecil Leroux is particularly funny when she joins the gender swapping and dons the disguise of a policeman with a heavy impeccable French accent. Millet’s trio of apprentices (Rusty Bringhurst, Trenton Krummenacher, and Brandon Green) are charming and drive the energy through one mix up after another.
Jensen’s staging is effective, adding broad physical comedy to accentuate and add to the comedy inherent in the script. There are a few plot points that could have been made less confusing with different staging, such as clarifying the relationship between the three apprentices and Millet. Their status as students is briefly referenced, but easy to miss, and it isn’t until Phelim (played by Green) shows the master his painting of a dog that it becomes at all obvious why they are all living together. Blocking that established their status as art students could remove a lot of confusion from the early moments.
Jennifer Taylor’s set is lush, beautiful, and creates a nice playground for the comic action. Costume designer Suzanne Carling and hair and makeup designer Trisha Ison create beautiful and period appropriate looks that help immerse the audience in the historic setting.
The West Valley Hale has put together a solid production, but even with a competent cast and well executed design, the play never feels more than mediocre. The dragging exposition doesn’t pay off with laughs soon enough, so when they finally start coming in the second act it takes to time to transition from polite chuckling to deep belly laughs. This is not a play without merit, but a flawed script keep it from ever flying.