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Is He Dead?
by Mark Twain, Adapted by David Ives
Directed by Edward Coffield
St. Louis Shakespeare
August 4, 2017

Zac McMillan, Ben Ritchie
Photo: St. Louis Shakespeare

St. Louis Shakespeare has had a lot of success with David Ives’s adaptations in the past, including outstanding productions of The Liar and The Heir Apparent.  Their latest production, Ives’s treatment of  Mark Twain’s Is He Dead? is another comic triumph to add to that list. A fast-paced show with much wit, innuendo, and a hilariously convoluted plot, this show boasts an ideal cast and lots and lots of laughs.

The story features a young artist, Jean-Francois Millet (Zac McMillan), who spends a lot of time painting and trying unsuccessfully to sell his paintings. Despite having a group of supportive friends and admirers, Millet has debts to pay, as does his friend Leroux (Timothy Callaghan), whose daughter, Marie (Molly McCaskill) is in love with Millet. The lender is an evil, Snidely Whiplash-type villain, Andre (Ben Ritchie), who tries to force Marie to marry him in exchange for forgiving her father’s debts. When a potential art buyer (Joe Cella) tells Millet that his paintings would be a lot more valuable if the artist were dead, Millet’s friends–Chicago (Jack Zanger), Dutchy (John Fisher), and O’Shaughnessy (Jacob Cange) help him fake a life-threatening illness so that his reputation as an artist, and the price of his paintings, will rise. Millet then disguises himself as his own widowed sister, Daisy, which only makes the complicated plot even more complicated, as Andre and several others turn their amorous attentions to the “widow”, while Millet tries to figure out how to get out of this mess he’s created so he can be free to paint and be with Marie, and Marie’s sister Cecile (Natalie Walker), who is in love with Chicago, gets jealous of her beau’s attentions to Daisy and begins investigating the matter. There’s a lot going on here, with lots of physical comedy, mistaken identity, and lots of sneaking around as well as wit and wordplay, and the situation just keeps getting more ridiculous as the play carries on to its hilarious conclusion.

Director Edward Coffield’s pacing is quick and sharp, and the cast is more than up to the challenge of this fast-moving plot. As Millet, McMillan is suitably baffled and bewildered, and as Daisy his bewilderment grows, as does his desperation. He displays a great deal of energy and excellent comic timing, and excellent chemistry with all of his cast mates. There’s strong ensemble chemistry across the board, in fact, with all the players hamming it up and enjoying every minute of it. Cange, Fisher, and Zanger make a great team as Millet’s students and friends, and Ritchie is a delightfully oily villain as Andre. There are also some great comic turns from Nicole Angeli and Jennifer Quinn as Millet’s enthusiastic friends Madame Caron and Madame Bathilde. Callaghan as Leroux, and Walker as the suspicious Cecile also give strong performances. This is a show where timing and ensemble cohesiveness is crucial, and this production scores well on both of those counts.

The set, by Matt Stuckel, is colorful and equipped with a variety of windows and doors that figure prominently in the show’s physical comedy moments. There are also clever, whimsical costumes by JC Krajicek, including some striking wigs. The lighting by John Taylor, sound by Ted Drury, and props by Meg Brinkley also contribute to the overall madcap air of the play.

This strikes me as a particularly difficult type of show, in that so much is going on and it has to be precisely timed and perfectly choreographed, but when it’s done well, it looks effortless. St. Louis Shakespeare has commendably risen to the technical challenge of this show, and the result is a pure comic treat. It’s a “laugh-out-loud” kind of show, and an excellent way to start off this company’s new season.

St. Louis Shakespeare is presenting Is He Dead? at the Ivory Theatre until August 13, 2017.

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