Mark Twain's long-lost play, Is He Dead?, at Deep Dish | Theater | Indy Week
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Mark Twain's long-lost play, Is He Dead?, at Deep Dish 

From left: C. Delton Streeter, Jon Karnofsky and Steven Roten

Photo by Jonathan Young

From left: C. Delton Streeter, Jon Karnofsky and Steven Roten

I didn't realize it until this past week, but among its many other attributes, the N.C. State Fair is actually a dynamic, real-time demographic map of the state's inhabitants.

While its youngest citizens (and their parents) tend to flock to the safest rides on the southeast side of the fairgrounds, the oldest, either by fate or with intent, are congregated in the opposite, northwest corner, home of the Old Grist Mill, the Heritage Circle and the Village of Yesteryear.

Deep Dish Theater's production of Is He Dead? would actually fit pretty nimbly among the lovingly attended atavisms of that section. After all, Mark Twain's never-produced script—which caused something of a stir in literary circles when a researcher found it among his papers eight years ago at Berkeley—dates back to 1898. After the discovery, the script was put into the capable hands of comedic playwright David Ives for a brush-up. Although he adapted and greatly condensed the text, he did not dislodge it from its original setting in the mid-19th century.

In its way, this production is something of a theatrical throwback as well, whose reasonably droll comic mannerisms skip backward, first 40 years ago and then another 40 before that, like a stone tossed expertly across a pond. For nothing here—from the comic melodrama to the physical pratfalls—would be out of place on an episode of comedian Carol Burnett's classic variety shows of the 1970s. That includes the cocked eyebrows of a fish-out-of-water lead and the broad-side-of-a-barn characterizations—some seemingly lifted straight from the 1930s—by a talented roster of second bananas.

Steven Roten milks laughs as Jean-Francois Millet, a great, and therefore naturally destitute, painter in the suburbs of Paris during the 1840s. The wolf is at the door, as we gather from strategically timed howls, when Millet's three friends—equally impoverished (if not equally talented) painters themselves—happen upon a half-brilliant stratagem.

Since no culture ever recognizes the genius of an artist during his or her lifetime, the solution is obvious: Fake Millet's death, announce it to the world and rake in the lucre as the value of his canvases goes through the roof. Representing the interests of the "deceased" artist? A twin sister—whom Millet will play, in drag.

I don't suppose this requires a spoiler alert: Complications arise. Millet's hapless first attempts at playing a woman earn the first real mirth of the evening. By then we've adjusted to the deliberately cheesy accents of his boon companions—and his curious lack of one himself. Kit FitzSimons is all faith and begorrah as Irishman Phelim, and Jon Karnofsky pronounces it "Cherman" as Dutchy, while C. Delton Streeter's wisecracks as the streetwise character Chicago sound like a cross between Al Jolson and Ethel Merman.

Ives and Clemens' wordplay is as decidedly old-school as the plot. When a character comments on how polite another painter seemed, Millet rejoins, "Of course he made a good impression. He's an Impressionist." Ba-dum-bum. And repeatedly, Marc Williams' direction seems to invite audience response. Thom Gradisher's all-but-mustache-twirling version of bad guy Bastien Andre did have Saturday's audience members hissing at his early asides that, literally, ended in the trademark mwah-hah-hahs of the Villain's Laugh. John Boni appears to channel Ian McKellen early on as Papa Leroux, a kindly patriarch in his wretched clutches, while Lormarev Jones was suitably doe-eyed as Millet's sweetie, Marie. Joyce Weiser, Sharlene Thomas and Ros Schwartz distinguished other supporting roles.

If there's nothing new in this resurrected script—and, trust me, there isn't—it is interesting to see just how much mileage contemporary actors can get out of such a fossilized vehicle.

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