Theater Review: Mark Twain's Is He Dead
A show that at first seems serious quickly morphs into a hilarious comedy.
An exposition introduces Agamemnon "Chicago" Buckner (Michael Burns), Hans "Dutchy" von Bismarck (Nick Kikola), and Jean-Francois Millet (Jeff Rodland) in a home with creamy white walls decorated with oddly-angled wooden slats crisscrossing the surfaces where paintings hang off-center. The rural view outside of the window and the twangy banjo playing in the background reveals that this show takes place in the countryside – the French countryside as we discover soon.
Not ten minutes later, we find a ruthless art dealer, Bastien Andre (Jerry Brace), who has come to collect an outrageous debt from Millet, who will be thrown in jail at 6 p.m. the next day if he cannot pay it – which he is unable to do at the moment.
All seems lost – a casted shadow of despair is overwhelming and an unfortunate fate seems inevitable.
Wait, I thought I read that this was a "hilarious comedy."
Many comedies in today's day and age aim to leave their audiences laughing throughout the majority of the piece, aside from a couple of moment here and there. But Mark Twain comes from another day and age – one where comedies are orchestrated a bit differently.
Imagine coming into a movie or television show during the middle of the story only to have someone stop and explain everything that has happened up to that point. Afterward, the story line becomes understandable, but it takes a bit of time. If you can understand, then it's easy to relate to Mark Twain's Is He Dead at the Erie Playhouse.
After the group, now including Phelim O'Shaugnessy (Domenic Del Greco), discovers that Millet would make more money selling his paintings after he's dead (once a potential buyer inquires "Is He Dead?"), they create a scheme to fake Millet's death and for Millet to go in disguise as his fictitious widowed sister, "Daisy Tillou." And they don't make a half-assed effort either.
Millet, in disguise, sports a strawberry blonde up-do with hanging curls, a red shirt – with his chest properly stuffed – and a pale pink apron and skirt in a cage-style that flares out. His cheeks are painted with blush, eyes brightened with shadow and lips colored slightly darker than his dress.
Talk about attention to detail.
With the change in Millet's gender come the most hilarious moments of the show as he tramples awkwardly about the stage, speaks in a squeaky-high voice that occasionally drops down to Millet's voice, and tries to cope as every male who does not know of the faked death falls in love with "Daisy."
The actors playing Chicago, Dutchy, and Phelim each bring a personal quirk to their character whether it be Greco's physicality with each line, Kikola's brazen German accent, or Burns' timely delivery of his funniest lines.
Rodland as Daisy fluctuates between acting like a monkey wearing high heels and a well-groomed debutante – both of which have their own unique humor.
The cast of the show helps to keep the laughs going by commenting on the oddness of Daisy's actions, highlighting the ironic jealousy of Cecile (Louise Weist) at Daisy and Chicago's interactions, over-exaggerating Millet's girlfriend (Kate Neubert- Lechner) Marie's staccato cries, and perfectly timing all of the ridiculous dialogue.
I have heard that first impressions are made in the first seven minutes, and if that were the case, the general first impression of this show would stand at "eh, it's alright." But often-times, first impressions lay way off course of the overall picture, and that can definitely be said for this show.
Mark Twain's Is He Dead at the Erie Playhouse should be a show that everyone in the area gets to experience. Though Twain may be dead, this particular show is quite lively.
Is He Dead continues its run at the Erie Playhouse Wednesday, July 23 through Sunday, July 27.
Khadija Djellouli can be contacted at kDjellouli@ErieReader.com. You can follow her on Twitter @Khadija426