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Is He Dead?
a Farce
by Mark Twain, adapted by David Ives

COMPANY : Pumphouse Players [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Legion Theatre
ID# 3720

SHOWING : April 16, 2010 - May 01, 2010



Richly intermingling elements of burlesque, farce, and social satire with a wry look at the world market in art, Is He Dead? centers on a group of poor artists in France, who stage the death of a friend to drive up the price of his paintings. In order to make this scheme succeed, the artists hatch some hilarious plots involving cross-dressing, a full-scale fake funeral, lovers’ deceptions, and much more..

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A Story of Selling the Art / The Art of Selling the Story
by Dedalus
Thursday, May 13, 2010
In his mostly positive review of the 2007 Broadway production of Mark Twain’s “found” play, “Is He Dead?”, New York Times critic Ben Brantley described a “by-the-numbers” theatrical trifle given life by a breathlessly funny cast, as if a piece of flat and flavorless writing had been “pumped through with nitrous oxide.” Unfortunately, Cartersville’s Pumphouse Players, in the first local production of this piece, has peopled the cast with too many inexperienced performers, and the whole thing, for me, sank like a stone.

Written in 1898, just six years after the classic farce “Charley’s Aunt,” this piece languished in the Mark Twain archives until 2003, when it was discovered by researcher Shelly Fisher Fiskin, and given a re-write by playwright David Ives (“All in the Timing”). This is an almost complete rehash of “Charley’s Aunt,” with a thin patina of Victorian Melodrama (complete with mustache-twirling villain). In this case, though, the set-up was far from convincing, the characters little more than one-note stereotypes, and the narrative drive a lame crawl.

It is 1846, and starving artist Jean-Francois Millet cannot sell a painting. Seeing how the “Dead Artist Syndrome” makes overnight stars of deceased painters, Millet’s friends convince him to fake his own death. He does so, disguising himself as his own twin sister, becomes an overnight sensation, then spends the rest of the play unraveling the mess this bonehead plan has made of his life.

I can see how a fast-paced, performance-driven production can “sell” this story, as the role of Millet is a mother-lode of comic-invention opportunity. Here, though, our Millet starts out mumbling and bland, reciting his lines as if he were completing a classroom assignment. Once he puts on the (admittedly funny) pink dress, he sends his voice into falsettoland (ALWAYS a bad choice), plodding through the material with little variation in pace, finding no opportunities for comic invention, showing the desperation of a puppy on a walk. And nothing is apparently thought through -- at one point, he picks up a pipe, then lays it back down without even taking a “test puff,” making logical hash of the ensuing comments about “smelling of tobacco” and “you’ve been smoking.”

There was some energy from his sidekicks, especially the brogue-tongued Adam Kelley as Phelim O’Shaughnessy (who I understand went on during the last weekend with only two rehearsals). If Mike Harris’ German accent was non-existent, he still gave the character enough vigor to dull the dullness of the whole enterprise. And the ingénues, played by Katie Plugradt and Rachel Rosshirt, were winsome and appealing, taking their characters a few steps beyond the farce-eotypes expected.

I have to acknowledge that the audience I saw this show with was, for the most part, enjoying it far more than I was. Many seemed to be friends of the cast, and, perhaps this is what was needed to willingly swallow this pill of a show. For me, though, there was not a single laugh, and far too few smiles. The blandness of the lead performance actually focused attention on the shortcomings and contrivances of the creaky plot (Why dress as a female? Why not include the fiancée in the confidence? ). And the similarity to “Charlie’s Aunt” only served as a measuring bar that was never approached, let alone breeched. For example, the friends here are an interchangeable group of accents that are left mostly in the background, rather than providing the focus of the plot. And the physicality is minimal here – no chases through the garden pursued by lecherous old men to speed up the action!

Farce is always a challenge to do right, and is “sold” through the commitment of a cast and production constantly striving for energy and invention. Whenever farce slows enough to consider the plot elements that are, by definition, outrageous and contrived, the whole thing falls faster than a ton of manure.

This production seemed to think that the sight of a man in a frilly pink dress is funny enough to sustain a two-hour recitation.

Believe me when I say, it’s not!

-- Brad Rudy (



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