MARK TWAIN'S "IS HE DEAD?"

by DICK KEREKES & LEISLA SANSOM
Theatre Jacksonville opened its annual Summer Classic in San Marco on August 17th. The hilarious comedy/farce “Is He Dead” will run through September 1st at 2030 San Marco Boulevard. The production is part of an annual special community educational outreach and offers tickets at exceptionally affordable prices. Tickets are $15.00 for the general public and only $10.00 for students and season subscribers to Theatre Jacksonville. Call 396-4425 for reservations.
Say the name Mark Twain to almost anyone and two of his most famous works come to mind: “Huckleberry Finn” and “Tom Sawyer” are still very popular and widely read. Far fewer people know that in 1898, Twain wrote a play based on one of his short stories. Twain was hopeful that Bram Stoker would stage it in his London theatre, but it never happened, and Twain just put the play away and forgot it. Fast forward to 2000, when Twain scholar Shelley Fisher Fishkin found the archived play and Twain’s Foundation commissioned playwright David Ives to update it for modern audiences. Twain’s version has three acts and 35 characters, Ives adaptation has two acts and far fewer characters. The play opened on Broadway in 2007, ran for 105 performances and was well received..
In his fictional story, Twain used a real French painter, Jean-François Millet (Josh Waller), as his main character, and pictures him as a down and out landscape painter who cannot sell his work. His three bohemian best friends, Chicago (Michael Bartlo), Dutchy (Matt Tomkins) and Phelim O’Shaughnessy (Kenny Logsdon) are equally impoverished. They convince Millet that if he were dead, the prices on his work would soar. His friends will collectively act as his agent and everyone will be better off financially. Millet decides to fake his death and returns to the scene as his make-believe twin sister who is widowed and flighty, fickle, and frivolous.
The three cohorts, Mr. Bartlo as the clever American, Mr. Tomkins playing the German lover of Limburger cheese, and Mr. Logsdon as the hotheaded Irishman are hilarious. Josh Waller, who has done a number of notable leading man musical roles (The Dual Critics personal favorite was his appearance as Batboy in “Batboy: The Musical”), is also a very fine comedic and dramatic actor and recently reprised his leading role in Ian Mairs’ “The Learning Curve.” Waller is excellent as the starving artist and the grieving widow.
Several subplots make up this madcap farce, each with colorful characters. Millet and Papa Leroux (Robert Blade) are both being chased by money lender, Mr. André (Al Emerick) played as a true melodrama villain, dressed in black and wearing a top hat (feel free to hiss and boo). The slimy André has his eyes on Papa Leroux’s attractive daughter, Marie (Sara Beth Gerard), but her heart belongs to the painter Millet. Another romance is blooming between Chicago and Leroux’s other lovely daughter Cecile (Miles Laura Para).

Harolyn Sharpe (Madam Bathilde) and Sommer Farhat (Madam Caron) are delightful patrons of the arts and as Millet’s landlords, they accept many of his paintings for the rent on his studio apartment.
The final two characters that round out this cast both play two roles each. David Gile uses excellent accents first as the eccentric and very rich British art collector Basil Thorpe, then as he doubles back as the King of France. Charles L. Bäck plays Claude Rivière, a flamboyant reporter from a Paris newspaper, and is equally hilarious as Charlie, the widow’s butler.
Director Laura Rippel makes her directorial debut at Theater Jacksonville with this show, and she could not have cast or directed it any better. Mrs. Rippel is the Theatre Director at Bolles School and has been for the past eleven years. We appreciate her taking her summer vacation to share her knowledge and theatre skills to create this thoroughly enjoyable classic production.
Two of the stars of this show, you will agree when you see it, are the sets and the costumes. Technical Director, Scenic Designer and Lighting Designer Jeff Wagoner has created a different set for each act. Act I is set in Millet’s cluttered and cozy studio; Act II in the elegant mansion of the now rich widow. How did he do it? A bit of theatre magic and we won’t tell.
Costume Designer Tracy Olin has designed a boatload of original costumes. How many? We lost count but enough for a major musical with a very large cast. Ms. Olin says it would not have been possible without the assistance of Property Design and Costume Intern Angela McGill and several other volunteers, including Robin Bruce, Katie Gile, Maggie O’Conner, Sara Beth Gerard, Curtis Williams, and Zeina Salame. The costumes are gorgeous and a study of the fashion of the era, with largely muted colors (because aniline dyes hadn’t been invented yet),with full tiered floor length dresses for women, and stylish suits for men.
Kudos to Stage Manger Lori Drake who managed to keep all that zaniness on stage going in the right direction. Director Rippel, in addition to her fine direction, added some interesting French accordion music to help transport us to France.
One of the liveliest opening night audiences we have ever been a part of at Theatre Jacksonville loved this show and you will too. Don’t miss it. The price is right; the place is the historic Theatre Jacksonville in San Marco. While you there, check out the outstanding season TJ has in store for theatre lovers in this area. The season continues with a Guerilla Series production in September and Neil Simon’s “Rumors” in October.

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