A Rediscovered Play By an American Master Is No Theatric Masterpiece

We’ve all seen Antiques Road Show. We can spot veneer and know not to harm good patina. We like to watch nice people discover that something they’ve collected is really valuable. It’s even better when the greedy ones discover that their treasure is actually worthless. Unfortunately, sometimes the line between trinket and treasure is nothing more than a factor of rarity. Not by merit but by market are things judged. The show can make us view everything with a price tag eye–if it’s old, it could be gold.  Maybe that’s why Water Tower theatre is producing Is He Dead? by Mark Twain, adapted by David Ives. A newly discovered, unproduced play by the famous humorist is an exciting possibility. But don’t get too greedy. All that glitters is not necessarily good theater. Ironically, the play derives its title from an art buyer who brashly wants to know if the artist of the painting is dead and, therefore, the work is that much more valuable. In the case of this production, you’ll have to wait to the end to find out what it’s really worth.

The play is from 1898 and is a fairly formulaic farce. The plot revolves around a starving artist, Jean Francoise Millet who is in debt to a moneylender, Bastien Andre. His girlfriend’s father is also underwater to this mustachioed man, but for the price of her hand in marriage, all debts will be forgiven. Throw in two old maids a la Arsenic and Old Lace. Add three underlings from The Matchmaker. And you’ve got a musty drawing room melodrama with a musical fighting to get out. Maybe, that explains why some of the characters sing their own little ditties and jig about. Maybe, not.  Antics can be fun but added to clunky word play and dire circumstances and it just gets confusing. And that’s not good for comedy.

Funny is located in the brain, you see. Everyone’s had a co-worker stare blankly at your best joke and say, “I don’t get it.” In that moment you have to figure out whether you left something out or they are a little slow – or both. In any case, there is no ha-ha if there is no a-ha! Maybe that is why it took so long for the cast to get the laughs going on Saturday night. There were simply too many things in the way of the a-ha’s and ha-ha’s alike. The more confused the audience, the more quiet.

The first perplexing thing was the set. Clare Floyd DeVries’ first act set looked like a rummage sale of old set pieces. What was supposed to be the artist’s residence/studio was a haphazard humble jumble of doorways, platforms, step units and flats. She has succeeded in making a set that was paradoxically hard to look at and harder to look away. This is not an easy place to make merry. Fortunately, the second act was in a separated location. The widow’s drawing room in shi shi Paris.  Unfortunately, this is also when we find out it is silly to place a vaudeville-y show on a thrust stage. Several exits and entrances were muddied by the long mosey down either aisle. Sometimes people need to appear and disappear at the right moment. A good door slam can let the audience know when to laugh. It takes a lot of doors to make a farce and this production is short by two.

A bigger problem is the shift in main characters. In the first part of the play, the driving force comes from Millet’s hanger-on Agamemnon Buckner or, as he is inexplicably referred to, “Chicago.” He has the cheery attitude and groaner joke lines that would lead you to believe that we are going to follow his scheming ways like some Commedia servant hatching a plan to save his master. Director James Paul Lemons falls for this feint and allows Kevin Moore to assume a character as broad as a vaudeville barker. His sidekick doesn’t help. Ben E. Bryant plays Hans Von Bismarck aka “Dutchy” with ridiculous German accent and impotent flailing. The first unqualified laugh of the night belongs to Shane Strawbridge as the explosive Irishman Phelim O’Shaughnessy. His laughs came not a moment too soon, though surprisingly late for a farce. It was enough, however, to tide us over.

The evening belongs to Mark Shum who plays Millet. His sycophants convince him to fake his death and assume the character of a fake twin…sister. Dressed in a dress with falsetto fun, Shum drags this script from the doldrums and creates laughs where there are none. Though, it doesn’t start out that way, this play ends up fun. Special mention goes to Paul Taylor. He plays an array of characters with muggy precision. Of all the players, Taylor is the most sure-footed in this genre.

I have a lot of sympathy for Director James Paul Lemons. It isn’t easy to know if you should refinish, refurbish or restore an antique. Sometimes disturbing the patina destroys the value of a piece, and sometimes a complete restoration is the only way to retrieve any functionality. The question becomes what is your aim? Do want something to market or something of merit? Aim for the second and sometimes you get the first. Though, I fear in this case, to quote Twain: the reports of this play have been greatly exaggerated.

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