A starving artist fakes his own death and then pretends to be the deceased’s own sister. The latest cinematic yukfest by Judd Apatow or an episode of TV’s “Happy Endings”? Even better. Despite the modern plotline, the theater piece “Is He Dead?” was written more than a century ago and found among the papers of Mark Twain. The farce was staged on Broadway in 2007, adapted by David Ives, a playwright with a flair for the mordantly absurd. A local production, performed by the Half Moon Theatre company, arrives this month in Poughkeepsie.
The plot, which echoes Manhattan’s backbiting art scene, actually takes place in 1846 France. The epitome of the starving painter, Jean-François Millet is convinced by fellow bohemians that dead artists sell better to a fickle public. Faking one’s death and then returning secretly to witness the outcome? Twain utilized the same plot device in the funeral scene in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, indicating he was not above stealing from himself.
The drag twist, however, was not Twain’s prescient gender-politics invention; Ives grafted it onto the story, additionally crafting such piquant lines as “Ten yards of Belgian lace and a wedding dress never hurt a man.”
Half Moon, a coterie of professional actors with New York and Los Angeles credentials, held a reading of the Twain-Ives play at last year’s Millbrook Book Festival. An exuberant audience response convinced Molly Renfroe Katz, Half Moon’s executive director, to mount the play this autumn.
“’Is He Dead?,’ because of its large cast size, opulent costume requirements and ample set, is ambitious for any company, but very ambitious for us: a small, five-year-old company, with no paid staff,” Katz says. “But we felt so strongly about the writing, the humor, and about the play’s ability to appeal to all ages, that we were compelled to rise to the challenge of producing it.
Already a celebrated man of letters, Twain wrote “Is He Dead?” by way of a personal challenge, says the show’s director, Paul Kassel, associate professor in SUNY New Paltz’s Department of Theatre Arts. “Apparently, Twain thought he could write a play and wanted to try. Like a lot of things Twain tried, he seemed to be at least partially inspired by the money he might make on it. It has a lot of the ingredients common to farces at the time (esp. Charley’s Aunt), which were vastly popular and huge moneymakers.” However, the text was “almost unproduceable” until Ives reworked it, Kassel says.
While cross-dressing can be staged for easy laughs—and this play relentlessly endeavors to extract such a reaction, proffering identity mix-ups and door-slamming frenzy—Ives has greater ambitions. The plot device of Millet’s visiting “sister”—whose presence puzzles the artist’s grieving girlfriend, Marie Leroux—affords equally sobering observations about personal identity, says Kassel.
“The play is about how we see things—the world, ourselves, others—and how our perspective can blind us to what’s around us,” he says. “But there is also a clear depiction of poverty and pain, and the palette is dark and, arguably, gloomy.”
Playing both Millet and his putative sister is Half Moon co-founder Geoffrey Tarson. Veteran New York actor Darrell James plays Andre, the avaricious landlord. The cast includes Stanley Beadle, George Conrad, Nicole Carroll, Michael Frohnhoefer, Ryan Katzer, Amy Lemon Olson, Barbara Rankin, Diana Stahl, and Frank Trezza.
“Is He Dead” will be staged by Half Moon Theatre November 10 through November 26 at Cunneen-Hackett Arts Center in Poughkeepsie. (888) 71-TICKETS; www.halfmoontheatre.org