Le Moyne College mounts Mark Twain’s cross-dressing delight Is He Dead?
Gone now 101 years, Mark Twain is really hot. The much-doctored Autobiography of Mark Twain, suppressed at his request for a century, has been on the best-seller lists for weeks. Now Le Moyne College’s Boot and Buskin Theater Group is presenting his only stage play, Is He Dead?, left in manuscript, and nearly forgotten.
Twain buffs will have to squint to find marks of the author’s distinctive hand in the action or dialogue. The expected satire, usually Twain’s long suit, is marginal. Replacing it is farce. Even including “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” nothing with Twain’s name on it is a greater laugh riot.
Given the scrutiny of Twain’s life we can easily find out where it came from and why it has shown up only recently. The author composed it while in Europe in 1898, recovering from depression, and never did anything with it. Big-time Twain scholar Shelley Fisher Fishkin of Stanford published an edited version in 2003. Then comic playwright David Ives (All in the Timing) refitted it for Broadway in December 2007, cutting a third of the characters and reducing three acts to two, where it ran a respectable 105 performances.
Despite good reviews and a favorable word-of-mouth, Is He Dead? has hardly been sweeping the country since. We can assume that’s because it calls for weighty physical resources and a cast that can sustain breathless frenzy for more than two hours. On those questions director Matt Chiorini, Le Moyne’s impressive new hire, delivers.
An empty-headed English fop, Basil Thorpe (Jake Ellison), explains Twain’s premise early on: “Take that Rembrandt fellow: good in his day, but now that he’s dead—incomparable!” This advice falls upon the ears of impoverished painter Jean-Francois Millet (Terry LaCasse), whom rapacious art dealer Bastien André (Patrick McHugh) is threatening with debtors’ prison. Such fate can only be avoided with the surrender of the beautiful white body of Marie Leroux (Jordan McCarthy), Jean-Francois’s intended. Solution: a faked death to raise prices.
Millet (1814-1875), of course, is a real historical painter, who would have been 32 when the action is set in 1846. Known for his sentimental, unthreatened portrayals of the peasantry, prints of his better-known works are bandied about during the action. In life nouveau riche patrons on both sides of the Atlantic bid up the prices of his work in midcentury and, sure enough, they skyrocketed after Millet’s death.
We can be sure this dart, the thrust of his satire, does originate with Twain, as the notion is preceded in the short story titled, “Is He Living or Is He Dead?” More of an anecdote than a story as usually understood, the full text is available on-line.
With the help of some knockabout, ethnically tagged friends, Millet reports his own death. To make sure things work out, he turns up as his previously unacknowledged twin sister, Widow Daisy Tillou. The dress, wig and makeup would not get LaCasse employment in any local cross-dressing clubs, but he compares well with Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie. And like Tootsie, Daisy keeps attracting unwanted male attention, first from the fickle dealer-villain André but also from Marie’s thought-to-be-pious father, Papa Leroux (James Barcomb), a randy old ram under a bald pate.
As a one-time playwright, Twain shows influences we would hardly expect in his prose. Most obvious is Brandon Thomas’ English farce Charley’s Aunt (1892), although Twain pushes the gag farther with frequently appearing cigars. Second is vaudeville. Millet’s pals are the twangy American Agamemnon Buckner (Tyler Sperrazza), also called “Chicago,” the German Hans Von Bismark (Andrew Derminio) and a redhaired Irish pupil, Phelim O’Shaughnessy (Devon Barrett). When you add the brainless Englishman Thorpe, you half expect episodes to begin, “A Kraut, a Mick and Limey went into a bar . . . “ A third element is burlesque, as when the pals decide to replace Daisy’s dentures and false eyeball. Twain is usually seen as the founder of American topical humor, continued by the likes of Will Rogers and Garrison Keillor. In playdoctor Ives and director Chiorini’s hands, he looks more like the godfather of the Marx Brothers. Consider that when the King of France, the Sultan of Turkey and the Emperor of Russia make their appearances, they are unmistakably other members of the cast doubling up, Jake Ellison, Kari Litteer and Katie Edwards, in makeshift costumes and crummy fake beards. Then there’s the constancy of breast jokes and puns. Pleading insolvency, Daisy grabs a prosthetic mammary and shouts, “I’m flat!” That such a groaner can get a huge laugh is key to seeing what this production is all about. Even worse lines (not to be repeated; they die on the page) get even bigger laughs. It’s not just the time but the conviction. It’s as if director Chiorini had infused the entire cast with a helium rush so that even players in small, thankless roles have a chance to shine.
Take, for example, Jake Ellison, who shows up five times, first as the clueless Englishman Basil. Ellison’s native comic abilities command attention, but the audacity and rapidity of his reappearances, morphing from the striped-pants journalist from conservative paper Le Figaro to a most implausible King of France, bring in the yucks. Similarly, Jenna Crofoot’s Cecile, Marie’s suspicious sister, looks like a thruway. Her donning trousers to spy on the shenanigans holds some promise. But Chiorini’s having her use a terrible fake moustache that slides around her face before falling off puts her into Clouseau country.
Everyone gets at least one score, but the big prizes go to the good guy and the bad guy. With his black cape and sinister cackle, Patrick McHugh’s art dealer André starts out in Snidely Whiplash territory, going for the easy laughs, and then explodes the cliché by surrendering to his jonesing for the Widow Daisy. For those of us with memories, McHugh’s comic inventiveness is underscored when contrasted with his Bridegroom in the Chiorini-directed Blood Wedding from last fall.
Nor can we neglect memory when assessing Terry LaCasse’s lead as Millet/Daisy.
Although still a young man, he is unique in the cast by having served a 10-year apprenticeship in Syracuse community theater before honing his craft with Thornton Wilder, Brian Friel and William Shakespeare at Le Moyne. In Is He Dead? LaCasse’s heavy lifting means carrying nearly 50 percent of the lines, some in near falsetto. In his growth he’s developed a kind of template persona that resembles a round-faced Jack Lemmon: a go-getter barely ahead of his galloping madness. This is the climax of his youthful career.
The production team of lighting designer Michael Blagys, costumer Meggan Camp (imported from Syracuse University) and scenic designer Karel Blakeley bring the magic alive. The wide open space at Le Moyne’s Coyne Center for the Performing Arts is designed to accommodate the wild extravagance of post-modernists like Caryl Churchill or Charles Mee. Here Blakely confines the space behind a freshly constructed proscenium arch and installs an unfurling curtain, really a painted scrim. On stage are polished panels with four doors, two left, two right. They don’t start slamming until the second act.
Ernest Hemingway famously said that novelist Mark Twain walked with the greats. As a theater man he can keep good company with the immortals: Ray Cooney, Georges Feydeau and Groucho Marx. They ain’t dead yet.
This production runs through Saturday, Feb. 26. See Times Table for information.
Indecent proposal: Terry LaCasse and Patrick McHugh in Le Moyne College’s Is He Dead?