Artists Are Only Respected When They Are Dead

In the classic American story “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”, the title character attends his own funeral, just to hear the good things people are saying about him. Death has that interesting effect: we tend to focus about the good of the person. This is especially true in the art world: when an artist dies, no matter his quality, the value of his artworks often go up in value. So, suppose you have a penniless artist and his friends, who owe a lot of money, and they have just come to this realization. What do they do?

The answer is simple: The artist must die. But before you think this is some murder plot, think again. The artist just comes back as his long-lost twin sister. Add to this a classic melodramatic villian (think “Musical of Musical” — “I must have the rent!”), an engenue in love with the artist, the villian in love with the engenue, and a second engenue in love with the artist’s best friend… who thought up the plot. Add to this a man dresses up as a woman, some limberger cheese, and lots of doors, and you have the making of a farce. A very good farce.

I mention this because last night we went to see this farce. The play is called “Is He Dead?”, and was written by an author you might have heard of: Mark Twain. Almost a hundred years ago, he wrote this play, but no one knew about it until it was rediscovered a few years ago and mounted on Broadway to great critical reviews. It is currently having its Los Angeles premier at the International City Theatre in Long Beach.

“Is He Dead?” tells the story of the French artist Jean-Francois Millet (Perry Ojedaæ), who owes a significant amount of money to Bastien Andre (Steve Marvelæ). Also owing Andre money is Papa Leroux (Jerry Hoffmanæ), father to the sweetheart of Millet, Marie Leroux (Suzanne Petrela). Neither can pay Andre; in particular, Millet can’t pay because his paintings aren’t selling. Millet’s pupils: Agamemnon “Chicago” Buckner (Brian Stanton), Hans “Dutchy” Von Bismark (Chip Bent), and Phelim O’Shaughnessy (Blake Silver)) come up with an idea: Millet’s paintings will be worth more if Millet is dead. So they invent an unmentionalable disease for Millet to contract and quickly die from, as well as a sister, the widow Daisy Tillou, who is Millet’s identical twin sister. Now, add to this mix Leroux’s other daughter, Cecile Leroux (Jules Hartley), who is in love with “Chicago”, and the two widowed landlady’s of Millet (Madame Bathilde (Terra Shelman) and Madame Caron (Jeanine Anderson)). Stir the mix with a number of love triangles (both Andre and Millet love Marie; both Papa Leroux and Andre love the Widow Tillou). Add misunderstandings and jelousy (Cecile thinks Daisy loves Chicago). Season with dialects and great comic timing, as well as a great supporting performance by Joe Friaæ as a British art patron (Basil Thorpe), a French detective (Claude Riviere), a servant (Charlie), and the King of France… and you have a very funny farce.

Farce is very different than situational comedy. Situational comedy are plays such as “The Odd Couple” (Neal Simon), where the comedy come from the people and their relationships, not just sillyness. Farce is almost sillyness for sillyness’ sake — think “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” or “Noises Off”. There’s timing and doors slamming; there’s misunderstandings and overreactions; there’s dialects and cross-dressing (men as women, women as men). Everything is played for the laugh. Farce also requires spot-on timing. I do have to say that this company was excellent. Ojeda, as Jean-Francois/Daisy, milked the cross-dressing and the kissing for as much as he could get out of it. Marvel played the evil villian well, and Stanton was an excellent schemer. The reactions and timing of the whole cast was just remarkable.

Turning to the technical side: ICT is a thrust stage, almost 3/4 round like the Mark Taper Forum. They had about 1/3 of their seats blocked off. The sets were mostly backdrops: in the first act, they portrayed Millet’s studio; in the second act, the opulant quarters of the Widow Tillou. The sets were designed by Stephen Gifford. The lighting was unnoticable (a good thing): there were no spots or lighting tricks, just overall lighting that established the time of day and mood. The lighting was designed by Bill Georges, assisted by Sean Conlin. The costumes (by Kim DeShazo) and wigs/hair (by Anthony Gagliardi) established the time period well and were quite creative. Props were designed by Patty and Gordon Briles, and included a significant number of reproductions of Millet’s works. Stage management was by Pat Loebæ, assisted by Terri Robertsæ.
[æ denotes members of æ Actors Equity ]

As I noted above, the story was by Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens). The manuscript was found by Shelly Fisher Fishkin, who had it adapted for the stage by David Ives. The original production was in 2007 in New York. The readaptation for Long Beach was under the direction of Shashin Desai.

“Is He Dead?” continues at ICT through May 24, 2009. Only Thursday and Friday performances are up on Goldstar. For other performance, contact the box office at (562) 436-4610 or visit the ICT Website.

Upcoming Theatre: Next Friday or Saturday (5/16) at 7:00pm, we’re likely going to the student dance production at Van Nuys HS, for which nsshere will be doing some of the lighting design. Sunday May 17 will be “big” at West Coast Ensemble, to be followed (hopefully) by “The Green Room at Hermosa Beach Playhouse on May 24 @ 7:00pm (pending ticketing). The end of May (May 28, 29, 30) brings Fiddler on the Roof” at Nobel Middle School, where nsshere is doing the lighting design. June 6 we might go to the last weekend of “Marry Me a Little/The Last 5 Years” at East/West Players. , June 20 @ 8pm is “The Little Foxes” at The Pasadena Playhouse. Lastly, July 11 will bring “Fat Pig” at Repertory East Playhouse. Other shows pending scheduling and ticketing include “Spamalot” at the Ahmanson, Liza Minelli at the Hollywood Bowl, and the “Guys and Dolls” concert at the Hollywood Bowl. I’m also always looking for interesting productions on Goldstar and LA Stage Tix.