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Scholar Shelley Fisher Fishkin came upon the manuscript for Is He Dead? in the early 2000s in the Mark Twain Papers at the University of California, Berkeley. The manuscript was written in 1898 but did not have its world premiere until 9 December 2007 when Fishkin helped bring David Ives adaptation to Broadway where Wicked‘s Norbert Leo Butz‘ portrayal as Millet received favorable reviews.
Ten years after the play closed on Broadway it is now making its Ventura County premiere at The Conejo Players in Thousand Oaks under the helm of husband and wife team, Randi Saxer Redman and Tanner Redman, who previously produced and directed this play in 2012. The storyline is nothing new revolving around a penniless artist, Millet, (Nicholas D. Johnson) who can’t sell a painting to save his life (literally) so his ‘genius’ international poor set of friends (Nick Bemrose, Ezra Eells, Robert Chambers) suggest he fakes his death so that he can make a fortune on his paintings post-mortem. And that’s where the story really picks up. On paper the story sounds like a flat penny but in fact its quite the melodrama with hardly any signs of Twain’s subtle satire and humor. There is nothing subtle about this script nor this production.
Complete with over-the-top sound effects created by Sound Designers Julie & Seth Hackett and one too many asides by the cast, the slapstick style comedy picks up speed after a sluggish opening scene. When Millet agrees to the wacky plan and re-emerges in a bright pink dress (designed by Barbara Mazeika) and dons fancy wigs (designed by Leo Zeller) the laughs rarely slow up.
Supporting the four leading men is a small yet versatile ensemble cast. Jim Seerden does a tremendous physical turn around from Act I to Act II and makes the most of being the stereotypical lecherous older man. Kyle Johnson appears to enjoy his turn as villainous Bastien André complete with evil cackle. Lauren Rachel and Dawn Michelle play the love interests for Johnson and Bemrose, each coming to life during the second act after a somewhat lackluster first act. Dawn Michelle especially knocks her second act performance out of the park. Judy Diderrich and Erin Fagundes play two spinster landladies and Thomas Carbone plays over the top comedic roles of Basil Thorpe, Claude Rivière and Charlie making full advantage of his shorter statute. Rounding out the cast, Stage Manager Jeremy Zeller makes a cameo as The King of France.
The show is one that should never work it is riddled with so much overplayed themes and jokes such as crossdressing, faked deaths, palpitating ingénues, spinster landladies, and a couple dated jokes centering around Limburger cheese (thankfully the props are not scented) and the idea of beautiful women being just a bunch of artificial parts. Granted, the last joke was probably the best played amongst N. Johnson, K. Johnson, Eells, and Chambers. And yet thanks to the script by David Ives (very little reads as being written by Twain) and the Redmans’ fabulous casting the show manages to be what it should not be — a bundle of laughs. And kudos to Tanner Redman and Jeremy Zeller’s gorgeous sets, especially the Act II Parisian apartment they designed.
Parental Warning: Unfortunately there is some crass physicality and unnecessary physical jokes that make this a show that would not be appropriate for many young families (it’s probably best to leave the kids at home because they won’t necessarily get the jokes and story) nor individuals who get offended too easily. The language is mild with some taking of the Lord’s name in vain and uses of words such as d@mn and sh!t.
|The cast of Is He Dead? (c) The Conejo Players.|
IS HE DEAD?
By Mark Twain, adapted by David Ives; directed by Randi Saxer Redman, Tanner Redman; sets by Tanner Redman, Jeremy Zeller; costumes by Barbara Mazeika; lighting by Tanner Redman, Jeremy Zeller; sound by Julie and Seth Hackett; hair and wig design by Leo Zeller.
WITH: Nicholas D. Johnson (Jean-François Millet), Nick Bemrose (Agamemnon Buckner), Kyle Johnson (Bastien André), Ezra Eells (Hans von Bismarck), Robert Chambers (Phelim O’Shaughnessy), Lauren Rachel (Marie Leroux), Dawn Michelle (Cecile Leroux), Jim Seerden (Papa Leroux), Judy Diderrich (Madame Caron), Erin Fagundes (Madame Bathilde), Thomas Carbone (Basil Thorpe/Claude Rivière/Charlie), and Jeremy Zeller (The King of France).
Running through 10/6.
Disclaimer: I had my ticket comped for review purposes but all opinions are my own.