Straight men in drag have made for sure-fire comedy since long before Milton Berle donned wigs, lipstick, and gowns on TV’s Texaco Star Theater back in the 1950s and Barry Humphries created Dame Edna several decades later. Charley’s Aunt made the first of his/her six Broadway appearances way back in 1893, and only five years after that Mark Twain wrote Is He Dead?.

What?  You’ve never heard of Twain’s gender-bending comedy?  Well, neither had anyone else until a few years ago when Professor of English Shelley Fisher Fishkin happened upon the long-lost manuscript in a filing cabinet at U.C. Berkeley.  Determined to see Is He Dead? produced, Fishkin saw her dream become reality when David Ives’ adaptation debuted on Broadway in 2007—to rave reviews.

Is He Dead? now gets its West Coast Premiere in a splendidly acted and directed (by Shashin Desai) production at Long Beach’s International City Theatre, featuring a hilarious star turn by Broadway’s and the West End’s Perry Ojeda.

Ojeda plays real-life painter Jean-François Millet (1814-1875), most famous for his depictions of peasant farmers in works like The Angélus and The Gleaners—but Is He Dead?’s outrageous plot is fantastical (and uproarious) fiction.

Though Twain is responsible for the characters, structure, and some of the dialog on which Ives’ adaptation is based, its Ives’ hilarious lines which set the farce-meets-melodrama-meets-slapstick-meets-burlesque humor from the get-go.  Here’s an example:

A chimney sweep has left behind a sooty post-nap impression of himself on a canvas sofa throw, prompting the following exchange, likely written by Ives:
–Dot sveep certainly knows how to leave an impression.
–Of course. He’s an Impressionist.

The speakers are two of master painter Millet’s pupils—Hans Von Bismark (aka Dutchy) and Agamemnon Buckner (aka Chicago), who along with Irishman Phelim O’Shaughnessy are frequent visitors at Millet’s studio. Millet is also visited by picture dealer/loan shark Bastian André, to whom the painter is deeply in debt.  “Pay me by tomorrow,” orders the dastardly Bastien, “or at tomorrow’s auction I’ll buy all of them for a song … and burn them!”

Equally in debt is Papa Leroux, father of Millet’s sweetheart Marie. “The moment Marie marries me,” growls Bastien at Millet in classic melodramatic fashion, “your debt is canceled.”

Collector Basil Thorpe may have the answer to both Millet’s and Leroux’s financial woes.  “I’ll take it!” he exclaims upon viewing Millet’s latest work.  “It grows on me,” he adds. “It grooooooows on me. Is he dead?”

Sadly, no matter how much Millet’s painting has “groooooown” on him, Thorpe changes his mind about buying it when he learns that its creator is still alive. “A painter has so much more talent when he’s dead,” explains Thorpe, and makes a precipitous exit.

Inspiration then strikes Chicago.  Millet can “fake the dying part and collect the riches” by donning “a disguise so thick that no one will be able to penetrate it.” Before you can say “drag queen,” Jean-François Millet has transformed himself into his identical twin sister, Daisy Tillou (pronounced “t’you), a busty mountain of a woman gowned head to toe in cotton candy pink. The widow Tillou arrives in town just as newspapers begin reporting grim news about her twin’s imminent demise.  “Immortal Gallic Genius Dying A Slow And Painful Death,” trumpet newspaper headlines, “from a disease so unspeakable it can only be spoken in whispers.”

A knock on the door signals to “Madame Tillou” that it’s time to put on her act. Basil Thorpe is back, and when he learns that Millet is on his deathbed, the collector is ready to pay 80,000 francs for The Gleaners and 10,000 for an amateurish four-part fold-out portrait of a dachshund painted and even signed by O’Shaughnessy (though Thorpe is convinced it’s a Millet), and 10,000 for the charcoal “drawing” left behind by the chimney sweep (again believing it a Millet). Wonder of wonders, Jean-François Millet is now 100,000 francs richer!

Or he would be had he not previously made a deal with Bastien André to sell the moneylender twenty-five of his paintings at one hundred francs each.

As Is He Dead? continues on its merry way, more characters join in the fun.  There are Madame Caron and Madame Bathilde, Millet’s middle-aged landladies, Marie’s sister Cecile (who later dons male drag as “Inspector Gerard LeFaux of the Paris Police”), Madame Tillou’s foppish doorman Charlie, and even the King of France himself.

At the center of it all is Ojeda, giving a multi-colored comic whirlwind of a performance as “Madame Tillou.”  Whether plopping down on a chair, skirt held up to her waist, legs crossed like the man she really is, or giving Marie girl-on-girl lip-to-lip kisses (provoking only an “I do wish you wouldn’t smoke” from the willing Marie), or paying vocal tribute to the late, great Bea Arthur, Ojeda’s Madame is a non-stop delight.

Millet’s international trio of ragtag pupils are brought to hilarious life by Chip Bent (Dutchy), Blake Silver (O’Shaughnessy), and Brian Stanton (Chicago), all three doing absolutely splendid work in the side-splitting tradition of The Marx Brothers. Steve Marvel has loads of fun with the villainous Bastien André, straight out of an 1890s melodrama (with three delicious spit curls on his forehead). As Monsieur Leroux, Jerry Hoffman has inspired fun in his would-be “love scenes” with Madame Tillou, and with a toupee that just won’t stay put. Suzanne Petrela does charming work as the oh-so-willing Cecile, Jeanine Anderson and Terra Shelman are in perfect synch as Mesdames Caron and Bathilde, and Jules Hartley (Cecile) gets to steal a few scenes as the imitation Inspector.

Speaking of stolen scenes, the majority of them are pilfered by the physical comedy genius that is Joe Fria, whether posterior in the air as Basil, or even more bent over as Claude (played with a tip of the hat to Groucho), or whoop-de-doing it as Charlie, or completing his outrageous quartet of roles as the très très français King of France.

A number of the actors have fun with accents, whether German Dutchy’s reference to “life’s oops und downs” or “O’Silver”’s lilting Irish brogue. Although most of the French characters speak sans accent, Fria’s Claude and Hartley’s Monsieur l’Inspecteur have accents français so thick, there’s hardly a couteau to cut them. I’m not sure why only they do, but I loved it.

Stephen Gifford’s beautifully conceived artist’s studio set, with Millet paintings hung everywhere, transforms into Madame Millet’s elegant drawing room in Act 2 and is a perfect fit for ICT’s wrap-around stage.  Kim DeShazo deserves highest marks for her gorgeous and imaginative period costumes, particularly a pair of over-the-top gowns for Ojeda.  Bill Georges’ lighting and original music, Anthony Gagliardi’s wigs and hair, and Patty and Gordon Briles’ properties complete the production’s excellent design. Choreographer Allison Bibicoff’s dance finale ends the evening on a bouncy note.

Who would have thought that one of the funniest new plays of the year would be a 1898 comedy seeing the first light of day a century after Mark Twain wrote it?  Is Mark Twain dead?   Hardly!

The Gleaners                                                       The Angélus

International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach.

–Steven Stanley
May 1, 2009
Photos: Shashin Desai

Comments are closed.