Mark Twain is known as one of America’s foremost writers and humorists. His books, such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are standards on school readings lists and he has been referred to as the father of the great American novel.
But that doesn’t mean he wrote good plays. As sports fans learned when Michael Jordan turned in his basketball jersey for a baseball uniform, being the best in the world in one field does not guarantee success in another. Which brings us to Is He Dead?, a play by Mark Twain that was never produced in his lifetime, and was not published until 2003, when it was rediscovered among his papers by a Twain scholar. More artifact than art, it’s currently onstage in the Mitchell Theatre at UW Madison through December 10th.
In Is He Dead?, adapted by David Ives, Twain pulled some classic tropes of farce together and hoped that hilarity would ensue. Our hero is the starving artist, Jean Francois Millet (no relation to the actual nineteenth century French artist of the same name) who will do anything to get out of debt and marry the girl he loves. Fortunately, his motley crew of stereotypical sidekicks (German, Irish and American characters) help him devise a plan to fake his death so the value of his artwork skyrockets. To complete the ruse, Millet must impersonate his long lost twin sister, leading to lots of misplaced affection, mistaken identities, jealousy and door slamming, which is, of course, all sorted out in the end.
In the lead role of the artist and his identical twin Daisy, Brendan Walsh does a good job keeping the play moving, dispatching nosy neighbors, would-be suitors, and undercover policemen with ease. He’s actually much more fun to watch in his female persona, as he struts around the stage in some impressively dreadful gowns.
The most compelling performer, by far, was Ana Gonzalez as Cecile, who believes that her American beau, nicknamed “Chicago,” is cheating on her with the newly arrived grieving twin. Although the pauses in the action onstage during her asides were awkward, Gonzalez’s passion and her character’s objectives were delightfully clear.
This is in great contrast to the rest of the cast, which mills around for most of the play, unsure of what they are doing or where they are going. The international trio of dunces tries to engage in some music and dancing, but the effort is half-hearted and falls flat. (At least the German, Jared Paulin, got in some jokes about sausage and Limburger cheese, while the Irishman, Ben Jaeger, did his best impression of the Boston Celtics’ mascot.)
The set, designed by John Drescher, is the most ambitious part of this production. Unfortunately it was also the element that didn’t work during Thursday night’s preview performance. Framing the scenes in Millet’s shabby French garret in an actual gold picture frame was clever and the transformation from dingy apartment in act one to swanky Parisian estate in act two was even more impressive when the frame repurposed itself, opening to cover the width of the stage. Except that technical difficulties prevented that from happening, getting the second half of the evening off to a very slow start.
Costumes by Brittany Graham were equally hit and miss. Though no time period is specified in the program, the play’s script indicates it’s the late 1840s — a period when voluminous hoopskirts were in vogue in France. While a few of the dresses looked period appropriate and well-made, others looked like cast-offs from a bad American history pageant.
Ultimately Is He Dead? lacks the plot, the wit, and the characters that we know Twain is capable of, and there’s not enough substance to label the play a satire. It’s a fair to mediocre comedy at best, and according to dramaturg Holly Berkowitz’s notes in the program, the play was roundly rejected by theaters at the turn of the century. While I’m sure there was great excitement in literary circles when this play was once again unearthed, this production proves its greatest value is academic.
But of course, the joke's on us, because Twain proves his own thesis. This play's value rose dramatically, once he was dead.
An edited version of this review will appear in Isthmus.