Is He Dead?

by DICK KEREKES
Reports of the loss of the popularity of Mark Twain have been greatly exaggerated. Though he has been dead for 98 years his works are still in print, popular and still controversial on occasion. Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are read by all ages and probably will be around forever.
In l893, Twain wrote a short story “Is He Living or Is He Dead”. Five years later he fashioned it into the titled play. It was to be produced in London at Bram Stoker’s theatre, but the theater burned down and Twain just tucked the play away with other manuscripts and it was forgotten. In 2002 an educator found it, and playwright David Ives (of All in the Timing fame) was selected to adapt it for today’s audiences. He turned the three act play into two, eliminated some extra characters, restored and revised some of the subplots and added some jokes.
The play had its world premiere last December in New York, and ran for 105 performances. It has played in Los Angeles but has had limited circulation so far and it was a coup for FCCJ to be among the first given the rights. You can see this wonderful FCCJ production on Friday/Saturday, November 21 & 22 at 8 PM or Sunday, Nov 23 at 2PM. Performances on the main stage of the Wilson Center at the FCCJ South Campus.
In the plot, Twain used a real life French painter, Jean-Francois Millet as the central character and supposes he is a down and out landscape artist, who cannot sell his work. His eclectic bohemian buddies, who share his poverty convince him that if he were dead the price would go up for his work, so Millet decides to fake his death and returns to the scene as his make believe twin sister who is a widow and slightly daffy. His friends are led by an American “Chicago”, played by Matt Mercurio with gusto and he matches his superb performance on this stage in On The Razzle last season. Also excellent as his pals are Jonathan Ross as the German, and David Benfield as O’Shaughnessy the Irishman.
Several subplots pop up to make this a true madcap farce. Millet and Papa Leroux (Brian Natale) are both pursed by the money hungry lender , Mr. Andre, played gusto by Justin Reynolds with all the qualities of a slimy old time melodramatic villain including the top hat and black clothing. Mr. Reynolds obviously trained for this role last season when he played Hitler in Good. Andre also has his romantic eye on Papa Leroux’s lovely daughter Marie (Dana Marie Ferger) while another romance blossoms between Chicago and the other daughter Cecile (Christina Christensen).
Mary Compton and Emily Hancock are winning as the two older nosey neighbors, Madam Bathilde and Madam Caron. They double back to play the King of France and the Sultan of Turkey and are joined by the Emperor of Russia (Chelsea Donavan) to attend Millet’s fake funeral. Alex David Palmer is hilarious as Mr. Thorpe, an eccentric art collector. Andrew McCharen makes a cameo appearance as the mysterious chimney sweep. The last character to appear in this play arrives in act two, as Charlie the butler a pivotal role indeed played by Justin Scott.
Casey Deming was in training for weeks, learning how to walk in high heels while wearing a thirty pound dress and a wig. Deming gives a tour de force performance as the starving artist and the grieving widow. His timing and pacing were right on the mark in a very humorous portrayal of cross dressing.
The costume coordinators, Dorinda Quiles and Camala Pitts have colorfully captured the 1840s in France, with eye pleasing apparel that adds to the fun. FCCJ’ technical theatre training program has to be one of the best in the country and certainly exceptional for a community college. Lead by Award Winning Scenic Designer/Technical Director Johnny Pettegrew and Scene Shop Supervisor Robert Rupp, students in the program learn to create exquisite theatre set designs complimented by superb lighting and sound. The first act’s studio scene and the second act’s palatial estate are breathtaking and could grace the stage of any professional theatre in the country.
It was a good day, fourteen years ago, for the future of exciting theatre when Ken McCulough accepted the position Professor of Theatre and Theatre Coordinator at the South Campus. He has directed most of the productions and has put the FCCJ program on the national map with certificates of merit from the Kennedy Center for their work. The casting for Is He Dead could not have been better.
Mark Twain wrote that writing a play was one of the most difficult tasks he had ever undertaken, and admitted he was not very good at it. I think he would be pleased with what has been done with his now successful play. It has farce, burlesque, romantic masquerades, mistaken identities and what Twain loved the most social satire. I am a fan of the l892 Charley’s Aunt and the movie Some Like It Hot, with both featuring cross dressing similar to Is He Dead?
Don’t miss the opportunity to see the only play by America’s best-known and best-loved humorist, Mark Twain. Call 646-2222 for reservations.

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