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St. Louis Shakespeare's Is He Dead? Is a Goofy Good Time 

Ben Ritchie makes a marvelous villain in Is He Dead?


Ben Ritchie makes a marvelous villain in Is He Dead?

Of all the great scenes in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, my favorite is the one where Tom and Huck crash their own funerals. I will admit to being envious. What fun it would be to see our actions interpreted, for once, in the generous light granted by a tragic death. And who wouldn't secretly enjoy seeing their loved ones blubber over their absence — without the sad reality of never getting to see them again? A fake death is surely the best kind of death.

Two decades after Mark Twain brought that idea to life in his 1876 novel, he made it the center of a play, Is He Dead? His young hero, Jean-François Millet, is a talented artist who can't manage to sell a painting. With a usurious lender demanding repayment, Millet's friends realize he would be worth far more dead than alive. They stage his death — and build his legend. The profits accrue, just as they'd planned.

But what they haven't planned for is the impact of Millet's "widowed sister," Daisy. Nearly everyone who meets the eccentric widow falls madly in love with her. Of course Daisy is just Millet in a dress, there to supervise his affairs and rake in his profits. But it's not easy being a gal, even a homely one, and poor Daisy/Millet is soon fending off suitors even while staying one step ahead of the law.

If the plot sounds vaguely stupid, it is. Twain's script — never produced in his day, and only happened upon by a scholar nearly 100 years later — was touched up by playwright David Ives before its 2007 Broadway debut. The result is a setup that feels straight out of a goofy 1970s sitcom, complete with a bunch of silly boob jokes and zany supporting characters. Dutchy, the fat German, loves smelly cheese. O'Shaughnessy, Irish, is filled with blarney. Madames Caron and Bathilde are two drunk landladies with over-the-top French accents. Can humor this broad really connect with an audience in 2017?

click to enlarge As Millet, Zac McMillan brings a Jack Lemmon quality to his cross-dressing turn. - PHOTO BY RON JAMES
  • As Millet, Zac McMillan brings a Jack Lemmon quality to his cross-dressing turn.

As it turns out, the answer is yes. In St. Louis Shakespeare's current production, which opened at the Ivory Theatre last weekend, Is He Dead? never feels essential. But it is a rollicking good time. Give the play a few minutes to warm up and yourself enough time to shake free from your postmodern snobbishness, and you may even find yourself laughing out loud.

The direction, by Edward Coffield, plays up the farcical. Villain Andre (a hilarious Ben Ritchie) even gets his own musical flourish every time he enters — signaling that it's OK to treat this as one big joke. The set overflows at times with actors, almost like a Marx Brothers' movie, and Coffield uses that busy feeling to great effect. His young actors skid around the stage, careen into each other and even jump over the furniture. It's all very funny, something like a particularly good episode of Friends, with a bunch of fake accents thrown in for good measure.

Like Friends, it only works because the cast is so winning. As Millet's tippling landladies, Nicole Angeli and Jennifer Quinn are unbelievably funny, while Molly McCaskill, as Millet's long-suffering gal pal, makes a lovely ingenue. And as Millet, Zac McMillan has a touch of Jack Lemmon. He makes a decent enough romantic hero, but in drag, he's so charming, you start to suspect something has been liberated in the inhabiting of his alter-ego. You find yourself rooting for Daisy to find happiness.

A man in a dress, of course, is the oldest of shopworn plot devices. But the nice thing about having an author as astute as Twain employing it is that he finds a bit of truth along with the old jokes. It's not just that corsets are uncomfortable or that smoking cigars is suddenly verboten. Poor Daisy has to fight off several men with mischief on their mind, and even a jealous girlfriend certain the widow has stolen her man. Being fake dead is easy. Being a woman? Dear God, who'd ever choose it?

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