Mark Twain's play "Is He Dead?", adapted by David Ives, is an uproarious hysterical romp. Or it can be. Unfortunately the current production from Theater Schmeater, while still funny, lacks a cohesiveness that could take it to the realm of "seriously funny".
Fictitiously based on real life French painter Jean-Francois Millet, we follow Millet (Brandon Felker) and his cohorts as they try to meek a life out from their art. The problem is no one wants to buy their art for what it's worth, mostly because they are still alive. And to make matters worse, Millet and his friends owe considerable sums of money to the wicked Bastien Andre (J.D. Lloyd) who is demanding his due right away or else the hand of Millet's love, Marie (Brittany Cox). But never fear, Millet's three compatriots; Chicago, Dutchy and Phelim (Zach Adair, Lantz Wagner and Thurman M. Kellogg); have a plan. Fake Millet's death and thus make his art in demand. But in order to conceal the still living Millet they disguise him as his own widowed Sister and the hilarity unfolds.
Part melodrama, part farce and part social commentary, Twain's play walks the fine line between all three. And while filled with myriad of fun little moments, those moments are really foreshadowing to plot devices later on in the show. And this is the first opportunity I felt they missed. Without connecting those moments to their eventual payoffs they just become gags. Also, not all the characters seemed to be from the same world. Some were outrageous and in your face while others were morose and somber. Is this farce or Chekov? Some had accents (French, German, Irish) while others did not. And while only one character is purported to be from America, why did others sound like that too. I would have been fine with that had some not been using a French accent. "So we're French but only some of us sound like it", just muddies the waters. And finally the pace seemed to really be suffering the night I was there. Act One just couldn't seem to find its gear. They found it during Act Two as they settled into a groove but had already lost some of that momentum. But I can more than likely attribute that to an off night.
Don't get me wrong, there's plenty to recommend this play. Felker, when he settles into his Widow persona, is hilarious and almost a typhoon of comedy on stage. Cox also shines as soon as she settles into her character. I just would have liked to see more growth behind that settling in. Adair, Wagner and Kellogg make an outstanding trio of near competent accomplices and bring a lot of the humor to the piece. Lloyd turns in a singular performance as a mustache twirling villain so much so that I expected him to tie Marie to the tracks at any moment. Lisa Branham and Margaretta Lantz are delicious as the two over affectionate landladies. Buddy Mahoney is beyond adorable as the aging and persecuted Father who owes Andre the most and cannot pay. Julia Griffin's ear splitting and jealous Cecile lends a wonderful air of cattiness to the scene. And Mike Jones turns in some stunningly diverse and hysterical characters as he kept disappearing and reappearing as someone new.
So yes, the production has a lot going for it. It's a hilarious play and director Doug Staley has assembled some truly gifted actors and has artfully taken them through the story arc. And I still count Schmeater as one of the best fringe theaters in town. But you can hit a bull's-eye every time and the production as a whole just seemed to lack a through line that could have tied the whole thing together in a nice little package.
"Is He Dead" performs at Theater Schmeater through October 13th. For tickets or information contact the Theater Schmeater box office at 206-324-5801 or visit them online at www.schmeater.org.
Photo credit: M Mowery