Friday, December 14, 2007
Is He Dead?
I don’t usually like silly shows, but this one is so over-the-top goofy that I got caught up in it and was laughing out loud throughout. In this newly discovered farce by Mark Twain, the art world is mocked with acerbic wit and social commentary, as well as a great deal of low comedy. The fabulous Norbert Leo Butz stars as Jean-Francois Millet, who would go on to be known as one of France’s greatest painters -- think “The Angelus” and “The Gleaners.” Twain portrays him as a struggling artist who stages his own death to drive up the price of his paintings. As the zany scheme unfolds, the play poses questions about fame, greed and the value of art, and pokes Twain’s mischievous fun at everyone involved.
At first Millet balks at the idea of being locked away while his paintings fetch high prices from collectors who, upon hearing of his illness and impending death, suddenly value the same work they had passed on earlier in his studio. But then his gang of cohorts cook up a ploy that will allow him to intermingle and enjoy the fun -- they remake him as Daisy, an identical twin. Imagine Shakespeare’s cross-dressing identity switches and add in a little Marx Brothers and you get the idea. Craziness and sheer fun.
Butz (in photo with Jenn Gambatese) is a riot, just as he was in his Tony-winning role as the sleazy con-man Freddy in “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.” He is energy personified, yet even though he is the star character, he doesn’t come across as the star of the show, and I mean that as a credit to him and to the whole cast. It felt more like an ensemble piece -- there wasn’t a weak performance anywhere. Bryon Jennings is delicious as a melodramatic villain and Millet’s fellow schemers all bring their stereotypical characters to life.
“Is He Dead?”, which had never been performed or published, was tucked away in a university collection of Twain’s papers. The version on stage at the Lyceum Theatre was adapted by playwright David Ives and directed by two-time Tony Award winner Michael Blakemore.
It’s nice to know Mark Twain’s work is alive and well, and living on Broadway.